Copyright and para-copyrights

Interesting editorial by copyfighter Cory Doctorow for the science-fiction magazine Locus, which distinguishes the para-copyright culture and norms of sharing circles and the copyright law of the industry.

An excerpt:

Copyists either know that they infringe but don’t care, or they believe that the law can’t possible criminalize what they’re doing and assume that it punishes more egregious forms of copying, such as selling pirate DVDs in the street. In fact, copyright law penalizes selling DVDs at a much lower level than sharing the same movies over the Internet for free, and the risk of buying one of these DVDs is much lower (thanks to the high costs of enforcement against people making transactions in the real world) than the risk of downloading them online.

Indeed, copyists are busily building an elaborate ethos of what can and can’t be shared, and with whom, and under what circumstances. They join private sharing circles, argue norms among themselves, and in word and deed create a plethora of “para-copyrights” that reflect a cultural understanding of what they’re meant to be doing.

The tragedy is that these para-copyrights have almost nothing in common with actual copyright law. No matter how hard you adhere to them, you’re probably breaking the law — so if you’re in making anime music videos (videos for pop music made by cleverly splicing together clips of anime movies — google for “amv” to see examples), you can abide by all the rules of your group about not showing them to outsiders and only using certain sources for music and video, but you’re still committing millions of dollars’ worth of infringement every time you sit down to your keyboard.

It’s not surprising that para-copyright and copyright don’t have much to say to one another. After all, copyright regulates what giant companies do with each other. Para-copyright regulates what individuals do with each other in a cultural settings. Why be surprised that these rulesets are so disjointed?

It’s entirely possible that there’s a detente to be reached between the copyists and the copyright holders: a set of rules that only try to encompass “culture” and not “industry.” But the only way to bring copyists to the table is to stop insisting that all unauthorized copying is theft and a crime and wrong. People who know that copying is simple, good, and beneficial hear that and assume that you’re either talking nonsense or that you’re talking about someone else.

Because if copying on the Internet were ended tomorrow, it would be the end of culture on the Internet too. YouTube would vanish without its storehouse of infringing clips; LiveJournal would be dead without all those interesting little user-icons and those fascinating pastebombs from books, news-stories and blogs; Flickr would dry up and blow away without all those photos of copyrighted, trademarked and otherwise protected objects, works, and scenes.

These conversations are why we want the things we’re conversing about. Fanfic is written by people who love books. YouTube clips are made by people who want you to watch the shows they’re taken from and discuss them. LJ icons demonstrate affinity for works.

If culture loses the copyright wars, the reason for copyright dies with it. “

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.