April 09, 2004

The (poor) state of copyright activism

I just read The state of copyright activism by Siva Vaidhyanathan and am impressed with the points made. It goes over well trodden ground, talking about how copyright has been eroded over the past 30 years. It talks about the Electronic Frontier Foundation, DigitalConsumer.org and Public Knowledge and what they are doing for us. It also covers recent events like Eldred vs. Ashcroft.

What makes this paper unique is that I've never seen one that argues for the public to take the fight up. Many of us who are interested in taking back our rights are some of the most wired people on the planet. Why haven't we been able to take our message to the streets where people will understand just how far censorship is going?

What we are missing are two things: a leader to organize the fight and a coherent movement to rally around. The Dean campaign had Joe Trippi managing a swarm of volunteers and creating an army from the ground up. We need a Joe Trippi to define our copyfight, to create something that people can say "I support the copyfight" on their bumper-stickers or their lawns or to their coworkers.

Why don't we have a DeanLink that connects people interested in taking back the commons? Why don't we have a DeanSpace that lets anyone create a copyfight group? Where's our Meetup? The EFF one isn't that well attended. Where's our manifesto? How can we have a revolution if we don't have a manifesto? It just wouldn't be proper!

In his paper, Siva Vaidhyanathan outlines four things that seem essential to the copyfight:




  • The principle of fair use — at its base a legal defense against an accusation of copyright infringement.

  • The principle that after the "first sale" of a copyrighted item, the buyer could do whatever she wants with the item — such as making a hat, or a broach, or a pterodactyl — save publicly performing the work or distributing unauthorized copies of it for sale. The first sale doctrine is what makes the lending library possible.

  • The concept that copyright protected specific expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. This is the least understood but perhaps most important tenet of copyright. You can’t copyright a fact or an idea.

  • The promise that copyright would only last — as the Constitution demands — "for limited times," thus constantly replenishing the public domain.


The copyfight is about something that should be easy to understand, but usually isn't. Lawyers and legalese scare people away from protecting what is ours: our culture. Up until now our culture has been held hostage by copyright, and any child understands what it means when you take their favorite book away from them. How is taking the Grey Album away from the public any different?

Individual shots in this fight have already been fired. DeCSS. Eldred vs. Ashcroft. Dimitry Skylorov. But the people who benefit from owning our culture have shot back. The DMCA. State level Super-DMCA legislations. Digital Rights Management.

We have a number of groups that have both the wherewithal and the respect to get this going. The EFF already has their action center, why not give an identity to the people who already take action? Instead of being a place that I send my money and tells me what good things it does, why not help me organize an EFF house party?

We already have people like Lawrence Lessig and John Walker telling us that the Internet doesn't ensure freedom. We have to fight for it. So who's going to step up to the plate and lead the thousands (or even millions) of people to take back our culture?

[Update: Copyfight proclaims that activists for copyright reform are Copyfighters]

Posted by george at April 9, 2004 04:21 PM
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Trackback from: Copyfight at April 19, 2004 03:21 PM
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Trackback from: Copyfight at April 15, 2005 05:56 PM

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