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Deprecate Copyright

[This essay was originally one of three contest entries for the Wipout Contest of 15 MAR 2002. The purpose of the contest was to give people a chance to express views not allowed by the WIPO in its own essay contest. The Wipout Contest organizers put it best:
What is [the Wipout Contest]?

In March 2001, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) launched an international student essay competition. Students were asked to submit essays with the title 'What does intellectual Property mean to you in your daily life?'. It is obvious that WIPO are expecting a number of self-congratulatory essays detailing the plentiful benefits of intellectual property (IP). Anyone who writes an essay which says that IP means:
“I can't purchase anti-HIV drugs because of patent law
or,
“as a farmer, I can't get access to patent-protected seeds for planting
or,
“as a teacher, I can't distribute materials to my students due to copyright restrictions
is unlikely to win a prize from WIPO, no matter how well argued or valid their essay was.

If there are enough people who want to write such essays, there should be a place where they can submit them. And so we at Wipout have organised a counter-essay contest. We are using the same title as the WIPO contest, but we encourage slightly more critical responses to the question of how intellectual property affects us all in our daily lives.

What this contest is not.

The organisers of Wipout are not campaigning for the abolition of intellectual property. We appreciate that there would be much less worthwhile IP created without some form of incentive for individuals and corporations. Many of the organising committee are authors and artists themselves and so have some interest in there being some level of IP protection. We are NOT against IP in itself. This essay contest is about the current over-protection of IP. We are strongly opposed to the excessive protection of IP and how it is accorded trumping power over other values and social priorities such as access to medicines, to education, and to the sharing of ideas and information.
This copy of the text may vary slightly from the version submitted for the contest. The original website has been offline since sometime in 2004.]


In the last 30 years or so, copyright law has changed immensely. While the 20th Century has seen a great increase in the powers of the content industries in general, copyright law changes really began to accelerate in the 1970's. In 1976, the need to register copyrights was eliminated. Copyrights were extended in length beyond the lifespans of the original authors/creators. Restrictions on copying and transmissions of information were increased substantially. Recent laws passed during the 1990's extended the timespans further and have begun to legislate free speech out of existence.

How did this happen?

It all began innocently enough. Publishers (the only content industry of the 17th and 18th Centuries) were stealing from writers without compensating them for their work. The English Parliament decided to put a stop to this and passed the Statute of Anne in 1710. Thus, copyright was born. This law made a lot of sense in 1710. There were no printers, fax machines, teletype machines, or photocopy machines. As woodblock printing was relatively unknown outside of China, the only way to print something was to have a set of expensive metal movable type and a printing press, or employ a lithographer. Setting the presses for an entire book was time consuming to say the least. As has been pointed out by Jessica Litman, copyright made a lot of sense at that time. The government was creating a limit that it could control.

However, it is obviously not 1710 anymore. Methods of transmission and reproduction have increased almost immeasurably. An individual can write and print an entire book on a desktop computer and have friends edit and proof read it before printing out thousands of copies on an inexpensive printer. Copies can be distributed in unlimited volume to unlimited readers without a single copy being printed to paper. If this were not enough, the content industries have claimed that when a document is loaded into memory on any computer it is "copied" into memory. They claim that these copies should be subject to their copyrights as well as all other forms of duplication. This is indeed a great volume of copying.

From this, it can be seen that a right to copies of documents has become unenforceable. The very act of reading copyrighted content on one's monitor is technically a violation of the author's rights according to the content industries. However, copying is being done more than ever, and this trend will only continue to increase.

So, what are we to do?

Most people agree that the author should have some right to compensation for creativity. Most people who are familiar with the modern realities of copyright law know it to be convoluted, ambiguous, and confusing. Why are we clinging to this outdated concept? There are many reasons. I am not going to go into any of them now, since that is certainly the subject of another essay. What I am going to do is make a suggestion: Why do we not just deprecate copyright. It is obsolete. We know it. Why do we keep nurturing this arcane notion?

The answer is because we have no alternative. That is where this essay comes in. I have a proposal. We recognize that compensation for the artist is what we are after, so why do we not just come out and say it. I propose we have two replacements for copyright: Profitright and authorship.

How would this work? Well, we no longer have any way to restrict copying (except by destroying all the technology we spent the last 40 years working vigorously for). From a legal standpoint copyright is unenforceable. Monetary transactions are quite different. Such transactions are generally well documented. It makes sense for both parties to make sure they have records of any such transaction. So why not fix such rights to money where there is a true paper trail that more than one party is keeping in a well ordered fashion.

This would alleviate many problems. Internet libraries could copy books for free, but could not charge for their service without paying royalties. If someone sold a book, they would have to compensate the author. If they gave it away, they would not. Teenage kids would not be accused of piracy for trading information (or should I say learning?). Scientists would not have to fight with publishers for the rights to their own writings. Life would be free of one more unnecessary complication. Profitright would simplify many things.

For those who wished to be credited with great genius (or great whatever), there would be authorship. Authors could have an authorization scheme that would verify that the written document was indeed their own (they could use digital signatures or a verification service, or both, or something else entirely) to prove they wrote the document and verify its original form. People who wished to modify it would need to append a message of original authorship and sign the new version or would be required in some way to mark their corrections/additions to the old document. This way, someone who had a nice addition to a brilliant work would not need to die dreaming of his contribution (yes, current copyright law would wait beyond the death of most of these would be authors. For example, lets say I write an essay. 10 years from now, somebody thinks up a brilliant addition. Lets then say I live another 30 years. Copyright says that the rights last until 75 years after my death. That means that if the genius was 20 when he had his epiphany, he would not be able to alter my document until he was 125 years old. As far as I know, no one has ever lived to be that age.). If an authorship scheme existed, he could make his contribution without having to risk the wrath of an army of lawyers.

Now we are both familiar with the problem and in possession of a solution. I would be a fool to think that such straight forward problem solving would be in anyone's political interest. Perhaps, though, if all the intricacies of this scheme were worked out and enough people thought it to be a good idea, some politicians might be forced to consider and even implement it. Or perhaps people could just use this scheme independent of legislation until it becomes the norm.

Therefore, let us replace copyright with a scheme that better fits current technological progress. If we are lucky, we will not have to revise or replace it for another 300 years.

Authorship: Jeremy Herrick (a)2002
Any and all alterations must be appended with this notice.
Document MD5Sum:
a03ccfd338360ca05d3734800f41b478 suggestion.html
Profitright: The author retains full profitrights from all monetary transactions in which this document is involved. Standard royalties of 50% will be charged on all sales of this document whole or in part. Non-monetary transactions shall not be subject to this or any fee.







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