Is copyright dead?

The thing that keeps popping up in my head as I read about this is – how in the world can copyright laws be maintained in the digital age?

I’ve had a bit of experience with copyright issues in the past. I’ve done years and years of theatre, and there are always questions of royalties and copyrights and when/where/how plays and one-acts can be performed. I’ve also dealt with it in the exhibit creation work I’ve done while interning at museums. The first thing I learned the first day on the job was: always try to find photographs produced by a government agency because they’re in the public domain and we won’t have to shell out a ridiculous amount of money to Time-Life.

But in the digital realm, copyright takes on a completely new life. As I was reading through the “Copyright Basics” article, two things really stood out to me. First was that copyright includes the right “to prepare derivative works based upon the work”. All that I can think about when reading that is the whole fan fiction movement, both the written stories and the recreated mash-ups and other videos that you see on youtube, which I think is a huge subgenre of digital storytelling. While it can initially be brushed off as obsessed fans, it could be considered as breaking copyright law. I guess the real issue would be if they started making money off of it, but if I was a published author, I don’t know if I’d like to have my work torn apart, recreated, and republished on the internet. (That ridiculously awful sequel to “Gone With the Wind” not written by Margaret Mitchell would be an example of this situation gone awry.) But the more I think about it, the more I think that even if the fan fiction authors were making a profit from this, there’s absolutely nothing that the original author could do about it, because how could this be enforced? It’s hard enough for police to catch and prosecute large-scale distributors of online child pornography, much less someone using the internet as a vehicle to break copyright law.

The other thing that stood out to me was that there is no international copyright protection. I think that is really the nail in the coffin when it comes to the efficacy of copyright law. Speaking as someone who has lived with a roommate who is obsessed with finding the cheapest DVDs available, regardless of whether they come in paper envelopes and have Chinese subtitles, I don’t think there’s any way to maintain copyright protection (especially for film and music) in an era where a teenager in Detroit can go online and order pirated CDs from Hong Kong and have them show up in his mailbox three weeks later for 10% the price he would have paid at Best Buy. The situation gets even more hopeless when you consider that you can go online and watched the latest blockbuster on streaming video from a different continent before it’s even hit the theaters. There really doesn’t seem to be any way to enforce this. It wasn’t an issue 50 or even 25 years ago when business out of the scope of US copyright law were incapable of taking US-produced material, pirating it, and selling it back to US consumers. Now, with instant digital access to all points in the globe, that is a reality of the industry that authors and artists are going to have to deal with more and more.

So, in short, I definitely think that if copyright protection isn’t dead yet, it may be well on its way.

Category: W13: Copyright
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2 Responses
  1. Tad says:

    Copyright isn’t dead, it’s just broken.

  2. rfachner says:

    i think I agree with Tad, copyright might not be dead, but it sure does need some updating. As the perception and use of art changes, we need to evolve our concept of copyright too. Instant digital access makes things incredibly complicated as you mention and there is just no good way of policing it all. Perhaps copyright law should be reserved for major infringements, rather than minor personal infractions. Which is I think where copyright stands today. And by the way, I thought the Ripley sequel to Gone with the Wind wasn’t so terrible….