Not that I am big fan of copyright, but I’ve come to accept it (thought not some of the things usually more associated with it such as Digital Restrictions Management) mainly because it is an incentive to authorship. On the other hand, for some time now I’ve come to understand history as providing an useful insight at putting the present in the current perspective. Carl Sagan wrote that “we [human beings] are like butterflies that fly for a day and think it’s forever” (free translation, I read the book in Portuguese). This is true of current day events: whether we notice it or not, we tend to think of them only in their current state, usually overlooking what contributed or originated the current state of affairs. We tend to skip putting the right context on the events of today.
And copyright is no exception. Today, copyright is generally perceived as treating information as if it were a physical object, i.e. as if it were not replicable. That is, not replicable by anyone except the copyright owners (or more accurately the publishing companies that “represent” the authors or artists). So the way this deal goes down is, someone creates something, a publishing company publishes it (books, CDs, movies, …), and you, the final consumer, “consume” it: you buy the book, or the CD, or go the theatre watch the movie or buy the DVD, etc… This is a business model that technology made possible: to store the information on a media, first analogically then digitally, and to massively (re)produce it. The selling part was just plain old business. The pace of technological development was such that until the late 90’s, massive reproduction required a significant investment, which made it only feasible for large distribution companies. That is to say, it was a business model that grew around a technological limitation. But technology is not a still picture; far from it: it evolves, and in the particular case of replication technology, it evolved (mainly through cheap recording devices and P2P technology) to the point of making it a cheap, affordable process. The problem is that this particular technological development, renders the aforementioned business model useless: nobody will pay for a service (distribution) that one can easily do for himself. And so ends one monopoly. Mind you: what I am referring to here is the distribution process; creativity should still be rewarded. But that does not imply paying (and subjecting to the monopoly of) distribution companies, all propaganda to the contrary.
This how I used to (and still do) think about copyright. But there was one piece missing on this puzzle: that’s right, historical context. This gap was filled when I found a video of lecture by Richard Stallman. Unlike most of his lectures, this one was not about free software, but about copyright. It is lengthy (well over an hour), which reflects the complexity of the subject. It talks about a lot more then just history, but it does go into a foray on the historical roots of copyright. And, somewhat surprisingly given today’s state of affairs, it turns out that the initial intent of copyright was to benefit the public good! Rather then a special privilege of authors, it was, according to Stallman, a bargain made with the public, in which the public forfeited its right to copy (which in practice could not be easily applied since the general public were not publishers – remember, this was in a time before the computer age) for the privilege of getting more books – contributing to the common good. Perhaps even more surprising is that, again according to Stallman, this view was and still is endorsed by the US Constitution.
But then computers came. And after that, widespread broadband network connections. Suddenly, the public was again able to copy and distribute information. Now I imagine most of the readers live in democratic countries. Remember, democracy derives from the Greek words for people and power. So we have a scenario in which technology made existing laws obsolete. I think the obvious thing to do would be to revise said laws, keeping in mind the objective was the public good. Instead what has been done is to revise the laws, but to try to force us into the old situation, by making the new possibilities provided by technology illegal in most situations; thus favouring the big publishing and distribution corporations instead of the public.
Democracy is aimed to provide power to the masses, and technology is now in an unique position to help. Information sharing, if nothing else, can be an act of civil disobedience, an attempt to give back to the public rights that should have been theirs in the first place.
PS: Short-sighted readers will complain about the first pragmatical issue: revenue streams. This is addressed in Stallman’s video, and I do not speak of it here to avoid this post growing even more.