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So Sayeth Soup: The Death of Copyright

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.”

—Thomas Jefferson

“The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.”

—John Gilmore

As content providers, many Macintosh professionals are asking “How can I protect my copyright on the Internet?”

Wrong question, and if you keep asking it, you are going to wind up roadkill. The proper question to be asking yourself is “What the hell do we do now that copyright is dead?”

Yup. Dead as disco. Stabbed in the back and dumped on the side of the road while the carjackers are riding around in its stolen Caddy, racking up huge liquor tabs on its credit card. Robbed and murdered in the dead of night. Yes, murdered.

Whodunit? Oddly enough, the Internet had nothing to do with it, other than acting as the Red Menace, which some very wealthy and politically connected people have used to scare government. Nope, the legal principle behind copyright has been sold down by the river, and it was done so by the people who pretend to love it the best: the motion picture industry, the recording industry and the major publishers.

Intellectual property law can be traced back to Ireland in the fourth century, where renegade bishop St. Columba snuck into Old Man Finnean’s library and copied his psalter by hand, and then gave copies out for free to local churches. Finnean had an absolute fit, and dragged Columba’s ass to court, which meant King Diarmit’s royal court. The King decreed “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy”, and fined St. Columba 40 head of cattle for making an unauthorized copy. Here’s the deal, though: Finnean of Clonard didn’t write the psalter in question, which is a book full of psalms, he just owned it. The issue decided by Diarmit was about allowing the wealthy and powerful to control the flow of knowledge, and allowing the commoditization of information.

This trend continued throughout Europe. In England, all publishing came under the control of the Stationers, who were granted royal monopolies and the power to burn unauthorized books. This power was used ruthlessly to censor new and unpopular ideas, and the Stationers often published books without properly compensating the author. The situation got so out of hand by 1710 that the British Parliament realized something needed to be done. So they drafted the Statute of Anne, which was intended to "promote learning and education" within the Empire. This statute both established the concept of the public domain and shifted power back to the authors from publishers. For fourteen years, an author could collect royalties and choose how and where his or her works were published; after that, it passed into the public domain, and became fair game for civilization to use and disseminate as it saw fit. This was popularly viewed as a win-win situation, and helped usher in the British “Age of Reason”. In 1740, the Statute of Anne was reinforced and modified, and became what we know as copyright law. The concepts of copyright and public domain were finally firmly upheld against all legal challenges in 1774, and the founding fathers of the United States lifted the concept for its Constitution.

In the past century, though, the wealthy and powerful have been lobbying long and hard through international consortiums such as WIPO to shift the balance of power back to the publisher. Fourteen years became thirty. Then seventy five years. Then it became the life of the copyright holder. Then it became life plus thirty. Now it’s life plus seventy years, applied retroactively, and ninety-five years if the copyright holder is a corporation instead of a person. No copyright held by a corporation has passed into the public domain since the first World War. Nothing at all has passed into the public domain since the end of the second world war unless the author donated it. As bad as that is, the fallout from the murder of copyright in the music industry is far, far worse. You see, most of the music you hear on the radio is considered "work for hire", which means even though the artist created and performed the music, the record studio owns all rights to it. This was unpleasant, but accepted by early recording artists, because, after all, work for hire reverted from its owner to its creator after 35 years. This was changed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so record companies, immortal entities, now own the copyrights in effective if not literal perpetuity. Tom Petty and Metallica will never own the music they wrote and performed while under a “work for hire” clause.

Copyright is dead, a murder most foul, and the effect it’s had on our society, civilization, and culture is heartbreaking.

NEXT PAGE: Content creators of the world: unite!

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