Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cory Doctorow, "Why I Copyfight." Locus Magazine, November 2008.

  Culture's imperative is to share information: culture is shared information.

Why does all this copyright reform stuff matter, anyway? What's at stake? Everything. Until a very short time ago, copyright was an industrial regulation. If you fell under copyright's domain, it meant that you were using a piece of extraordinary industrial apparatus — a printing press, a motion-picture camera, a record press. The cost of this apparatus was significant, so adding a couple hundred bucks for the services of a skilled copyright attorney to the deal wasn't much of a hardship. It merely tacked a couple percentage points of overhead onto the cost of doing business. When non-industrial entities (e.g., people, schools, church groups, etc.) interacted with copyrighted works, they did things that copyright law didn't have anything to say about: they read books, they listened to music, they sang around the piano or went to the movies. They discussed this stuff. They sang it in the shower. Retold it (with variations) to the kids at bedtime. Quoted it. Painted murals for the kids' room based on it.

Then came the early days of the copyfight: the analog period, when VCRs, double-cassette-decks, photocopiers, and other proto-copying technology came along. Now it was possible to do things that rose to the realm of copyright's regulated activities (copying, performing, displaying, adapting) with stuff lying around the house. Dealer rooms at cons sometimes sported crudely bound fanfic "novels," teenagers courted each other with mix tapes, you could bring some HBO over to the neighbors' on VHS cassette and have a movie party. And yet, there was comparatively little danger in this process. Although these activities were of dubious legality (certainly, the big rightsholder groups considered them technological suitcase nukes, comparing the VCR to the Boston Strangler and promising that "home taping is killing music"), the cost of enforcement was very high. Publishers and record labels and studios couldn't watch what you did at home and work and parties and cons, not without an expensive network of paid snitches whose salaries would exceed any losses they were experiencing.

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