We Gotta Think About This

In the November Locus magazine, Corey Doctorow has an article entitled “It’s Time to Stop Talking About Copyright.” Now, I admit up front that I’m a bit old school and protective when it comes to copyright, and Corey Doctorow is about three jumps ahead of the cutting edge on the subject. Which is to say that I always find whatever he has to say on the topic of Intellectual Property (IP) thought-provoking and well worth reading, even when I don’t agree with him. Odd thing, though–on several occasions when I emphatically did not agree with him, I find myself, unprompted and over time, slowly coming around to something a little closer to his position. So when I saw the title of the new Locus article, my immediate reaction was “Ok, convince me.”

Took about two paragraphs.

(Locus usually puts Doctorow’s articles online a week or so after they appear in print, so if you don’t subscribe, I would suggest that you check back on the web site after the article is up. I think it should be required reading.)

I’m not going to attempt to summarize the article here, but the takeaway is simple enough—the entertainment industry tail is wagging the internet dog, and this is not a good thing. As someone who still believes that copyright is a good and necessary protection, I also see that, as it’s currently written, copyright law is a 19th century legal framework attempting to deal with a 21st century reality. It’s becoming increasingly obvious even to traditionalists like me that something’s got to change.

No one denies that entertainment is a big part of the internet. As a writer—much of whose work is available online—I want my IP, that is, my right to license my work to whom I choose and make it available in what forms I choose, to be protected. ”Copyright” is just what it says–basically the right to make copies. This was fine when paper copies were the only game in town, and for “making copies” read “publish.” Some writers still aren’t clear on the distinction. Unless you sell your copyright—never do that—you do not “sell” your work. You license the right to make copies to your publisher, who makes and distributes said copies. That’s what publishing is. Yet the internet doesn’t function without the ability to make copies. Copies of web pages, copies of files, copies of media, and does it a ridiculous number of times a day during its normal functioning. Which means that making copies is easy, because it has to be. Which means that, in some circumstances, people are acquiring copies of materials that they do not have the legal right to possess. No one disputes that. And don’t start on the “information wants to be free” mantra. Information may want to be free, but Entertainment is hard work to create and wants to be paid for.

Now, as a writer I know that “piracy happens.” I was on the SFWA Anti-Piracy Committee for several years, so I really know that. I also know that the nature of the internet makes it impossible to completely control piracy. You do what you can within the limits of possibility and otherwise let it go. Entertainment companies with deep pockets aren’t interested in such realities. They want to change reality to make sure the “paid for” portion of that statement happens. In every instance. As Doctorow points out, they’re suggesting and sometimes getting campus networks and other internet providers to install invasive software agents that “snoop” for illegal activity, mostly movie and music downloads…and I think you see the problem.

Suppose President-For-Life Mubarak had possessed a way to track and identify every posting and email exchange and IM and Tweet of and between the leaders of the insurrection in its very early stages. What do you think might have happened then? And that’s just one example. Closer to home, if you trust Homeland Security or any one of a dozen other surveillance-happy agencies to respect these legal distinctions once the snooping software is widespread and mandatory and just so available (so much more efficient than the data-mining they use now), then you’re delusional. And that’s not even counting all the other interested parties (marketers, ex-boy or girlfriends, paranoid or abusive spouses). The software will be used in ways for which it wasn’t originally intended, and it will be done without adult supervision. You know it and I know it.

I’m with Doctorow on this one. Framing the discussion of the internet and IP strictly in terms of copyright simply isn’t working. I don’t know what the answer is, but maybe we should at least start thinking about it. While we still can.