BitDepth 811 - December 06

On copyright, copyleft and finding ways to reconcile intellectual property rights with modern digital realities.
Copyleft and infringement
Before downloadable digital files, before CDs, even before black vinyl, there was the wax drum. No wonder people attended concerts in droves. Image via Steve Schoenherr.

Copyright, its enforcement and the thousand cuts of casual licensing infractions are, quite possibly, the most critical aspect of modern digital life for creators.
Copyright isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s so unwieldy in the face of digital distribution that enforcing ownership of creative works has become the bane of writers and photographers who post their work to the web and an almost constant source of frustration and irritation for people who fancy their output and would like to make use of it themselves.

Monitoring requires an almost constant effort to address unlicensed use in the age of Facebook, where copying and pasting the work of others provides the groundswell surge of the network’s tidal wave of sharing.
Copyright is less a human entitlement than it is a business model. There was no need to charge for access to recordings when recordings were almost uniformly bad and the only real way to hear music was to attend a concert. 

Once quality performances were unyoked from the live presence of performers and reproductions of those works provided enough quality that they could replace, if not in presence, then at least in accessibility and convenience, the output of a creative artist, a mechanism was needed to provide a tithe of recompense to the original author.

So music followed the model of books, and movies, and television shows followed the model of songs and this creaky but functional way of paying for multiple copies of creative work became a standard.
Then technology improved and permeated everyday life. Smart developers realised that even on the slow wires of dial-up, it was possible to move digital encodings of music around and share them.

Napster may be dead, but that spirit of sharing drives the most popular websites visited by Internet audiences today, and it isn’t just music anymore. Riding on torrent networks, movies, in formats ranging from camera captures off screens all the way up to 1080p BluRay rips, are matched only by the brisk turnaround in rips of television programming.

The fluency and efficiency of content piracy is so daunting that every author must now seriously consider existing systems of making money from producing creative works to be fundamentally broken. It’s a bit like shovelling hay into the smoking ruin of a barn hoping that the horses will be back someday.

The situation as it stands now is an almost complete inversion of the situation as it existed in the latter half of the 20th century.
During that time I had the thoroughly unpalatable experience of buying favoured albums in three different formats, first as vinyl albums, then as CDs and finally as digital files, each repurchase made more attractive by the addition of new material enabled by the richer capacities of the new distribution method.

So what are creators supposed to do? Alternatives for rights management exist for casual content providers, those keen to share their photos and thoughts with no thought to recompense. They can notify users of any limitations using Creative Commons licensing, but even those liberal terms get abused.

I’ve found it most useful to be fierce with asserting my ownership and authority over my work while being a bit of a soft touch when it comes to licensing terms, particularly for noble and underfunded causes. Visitors to my website will also find that vast swaths of my content are freely available for viewing there.

Still, it’s difficult to shake the strong sense of unease I’ve been having lately that the recompense model of copyright is shattered and nothing else is coming along to replace it.

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