Mix Lucas and Hitchcock and it’s piracy but mix the works of Milton and Shakespeare and it’s called creative writing.
I’ve been carrying out research into copyright legislation and whether it can work effectively in a digital context.
I was listening to Professor Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford University Law School and the founder of its Center for Internet and Society. Lessig has written three books, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture, and much of what he has warned of has come to pass, particularly the assault on intellectual property rights by corporations seeking to protect their revenue models in the new rip and mix culture.
Mark Twain wrote 100 years ago, “Only one thing is impossible for God. To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet."
After days spent reading through explanatory texts on the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and it's European equivalent, I’m inclined to agree.
Lessig, the champion of the public domain, offers this definition: “The purpose of copyright is that, in exchange for a government-backed monopoly, you create something new". But you need do nothing more for another 20 years of government monopoly.
Both European and US copyright legislation has been extended, 11 times in the past 40 years, to the point where it now stands as the life of the author plus 70 years or - if the work is anonymously or corporately authored - 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation.
This attack on the public domain, the nature of intellectual property and its free use, affects us all. Copyright law, says Lessig, has not been developed for digital technologies and it’s a terrible mistake to extend the rights of copyright owners.
“This is insane,” says Lessig. “In order to protect the profits of a relatively small group of companies, you are extending the term for all works when only a small proportion of works, 2% according to the US Supreme Court, has any ongoing commercial value at all.
"The balance remains locked up under copyright and, as a consequence, libraries can no longer make information available because they have to track down the copyright owner and we have no good system to report on who the copyright owner actually is.
“What we need to do," says Lessig, "is filter out those that need the benefits of additional copyright and find a simple way to mark content with freedoms to allow others to offer derivative work.”
This is something that is already happening in the open source software market with General Public Licence (GPL) that governs the distribution of Linux.
Lessig believes that a solution to the copyright dilemma exists with the Creative Commons licence, which is not meant to compete with copyright but complement it, by stating that “some rights are reserved” and allows writers like myself to mark digital and website content with the freedoms the author intended and “encourage creativity without the lawyers standing in between”.
In November a UK version of a Creative Commons Licence will appear, designed to complement the BBC’s Creative Archive Project, which will see the corporation placing its content in the public domain.
“We need to understand how creativity happens,” says Lessig and he warns of a bleak future if we insist on locking digital content behind an unwieldy permissions-based system, the big "C". What has already been achieved in the open source community needs to be extended to all areas of digital content creation.
On reflection supporting the Creative Commons movement may also be your chance to say “No” to Brussels, where European Union Directive 2001/29/EC has led to a number of important changes to UK copyright law. The most important change is to remove some of the exceptions to copyright (ie fair dealing and the library privileges we have taken for granted).
We need commonsense legislation and not larger sticks to beat our children with when they become digital pirates and Creative Commons licensing may offer the only light at the end of an increasingly narrowing tunnel.
Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit www.zentelligence.com
This was first published in October 2004