A CopyNight to Remember

June 29, 2010

On June 28, Boing Boing co-editor, sci-fi author, and UK Open Rights Group co-founder Cory Doctorow spoke at this month’s CopyNight DC.  Doctorow has long been a respected voice in the debate about copyright law’s effect on culture, but he’s recently broadened his arguments to take aim at the consequences that overreaching copyright enforcement has for democracy itself.  The talk was inspiring, informative, and entertaining, and I highly recommend it (watch it here) to anyone who’s interested in. . . well, democracy itself.

As Doctorow points out, the problems that some copyright owners have with the new technological possibilities offered by the Internet overlap with the problems that repressive governments have with the Internet.  Industry calls to use technology to control users remotely, track content, and stifle innovative technologies are frighteningly similar to some governments’ efforts to achieve the same ends.  Generally, when you hear yourself telling the US to emulate China’s censorship models to prevent anything that could possibly be infringement (see Bono in the New York Times earlier this year), that’s a sign you’ve gone down the wrong track.

What’s more, as Doctorow expertly explained (I’m serious, you need to watch this), these technological measures utterly fail to accurately identify and prevent infringement, short of discarding the proverbial scalpel for a sledge hammer.  It’s fairly evident to anyone who’s looked at copyright law that technology can’t accurately determine which uses are infringing and which are not.  Infringement is a legal analysis, which is why our law lets this play out in the courts.  In response, as Viacom recently requested in a lawsuit against Google, some rightholders say online hosts and other intermediaries should be required to screen every work submitted to them for infringement before letting the user post it.  By Doctorow’s calculation, with 29 hours of video being uploaded every minute to YouTube, this “exceeds the number of copyright lawyer hours remaining between now and the heat death of the universe.”

But even if it didn’t, this would radically re-make the world of content available to us online, by forcing users go through a burdensome, expensive legal analysis before exercising their right to express themselves.  As Doctorow said, this is “certainly something that no kid or community group would be able to achieve . . . .  This is just too high a bar for them.”  Imposing this kind of burden on every Internet user would ensure that only the well-funded and powerful could get their content online.

And this is where the heart of Doctorow’s argument lies: the Internet is the single most important tool we’ve seen in this lifetime to encourage free speech and access to information, and when we cut people out of the loop we cut them off from participating in society.  This is the public face of the copyfight: “this is about which families will enjoy access to the largest library ever assembled and whose kids will go to college.”  Internet access improves individuals’ quality of life, by helping them find a job, pay bills more cheaply, and access information about anything from their local government to nutrition and health care.  This is just too important to throw out the window because someone might commit copyright infringement.  If a creator’s intellectual property rights have been infringed, we should address that problem without enabling companies and governments to exclude people from the most powerful tool they have to participate in and contribute to society.