Copyright Musings

Here are some of my musings about copyright. They're not really complete or definite, just thoughts.

This arises out of the awareness that computers, the internet, digital technology, have changed the nature of copying and therefore copyright. The fact is that with modern computers copying is not only incredibly simple, trivial even, but it is an essential part of the process of reading, listening or watching a work. To read or listen to or watch something you must at least copy it into memory and then onto the screen or output device. The ability to copy and communicate work will only become easier and simpler and will not go away. The old concepts of copyright will inevitably fall away and take business models based on it with it.

Just a short note about the use of encryption to control copying:
DRM (Digital Rights Management) and various encryption techniques have been tried in order to try and control the ability of users to copy digital files but they end up being much more difficult to use than simple unrestricted files and much more restrictive than plain copies are. For example, you can't "lend" a restricted file to a friend like you can a book, CD, DVD, you can't copy a paragraph of text etc. Encumbered files can cause people great difficulty and even make them unable to use data they have paid for (for instance when users upgrade their computers or a key server goes away). Given a choice people will choose not to use such things. They will opt for unencumbered data. Ultimately in order to use such things people must be able to decrypt the data and view it in the clear and this will always be the downfall of encrypting data for public viewing. In order to be successful corporations must control the viewing platform. You end up with a situation where you need different devices to view different companies files.

With the internet these days, what is on the internet stays on the internet. One of the things that has changed is that many people can "publish" their own works directly on the internet with no middle-men, no publishers, distributors or physical shop-fronts. Actually for most people that's not entirely true, but the middle-men have changed to web-hosting companies, secure-online payment companies, web designers, ISPs etc. Mainly people who really have very little or nothing to do with the content at all.

I think that copyright on books, music and movies are very different things and affect different people and traditional businesses in different ways.

Copyright on books, on the written word, has quite a long tradition, it has been around since sometime after the invention of the printing press. Say about 200 or 300 years. There are many people who earn their living one way or another by the use of copyright on words. You may have noticed that books published in the last 70 years or so are much less likely to be on the net. Publishing companies gained leverage and earn money on the basis of the scarcity and expense of copying equipment. The old publishing industry has really not come to grips with the net at all so there are many books that have never or will not at least for the near future be openly available on the net even though the ability to manipulate, to copy, transmit over the internet and view books has been around for more than a decade now. Newspapers and magazines are trying various business models to cope with the internet but finding restricting readership is not too successful. Not going online is not really an option for them either though.

Compare copyright of books with music. The technology that allowed us to reproduce and copy sounds, pictures and moving pictures arose much later and the ideas of copyright of the written word were extended to cover music and movies. Until near the beginning of the 20th century musicians earned their money by performance and most still do. Then people began to be able to reproduce music and sell copies. Very few musicians ever earned really big bucks from this. What has changed is that there are some, let's call them "publishing" companies, that have made an enormous amount of money out of music but this really only started in a big way half way through the 20th century. The window where recording equipment was possible and expensive and before digitisation allowed copying to become trivial was much smaller for sound than for the written word and while the profits involved are staggering and those companies don't want to give up their golden goose, the window for this has really passed quite quickly.

If you think of movies as an extension of the playhouse the situation with movies is really rather similar to music. The differences are that people can spend a lot more money to make movies and movie making can require a large team of people. Until fairly recently copying movies and even just watching movies required special equipment. Technology to distribute and watch movies in the home is not that old, starting with TV and extending to videos and finally digital but the quality is only now reaching cinema quality. Communication and storage bandwidth have only recently got to a point where watching, storing and transmitting reasonable quality movies is in the normal range of ordinary household computer activity.

In other words if you consider the window between the time which copying was first possible but was expensive and involved scarce resources and the time when it became trivial, the written word had a much longer window compared to music or movies and the written word has a much more entrenched tradition of making money through copyright. Ultimately though, copying being a trivial operation now and into the future the whole idea of copyright and business models that depend on it will inevitably have to change.

Post Muse (2009-01-16) : I was talking about this with a friend the other day and he said something which surprised me. He said: "I don't read actual books much these days. I do read a lot but I don't read much that isn't published online any more." I wonder if this will be the fate of books, to be left behind as publishing moves to the web. Certainly technical writing seems to be moving that way. Things just move so fast that a book is often old as soon as it's printed.


Kim said...

An interesting summation of e-books here

Kim said...

An interesting post here.
The print industry may not be sexy, but it is colossal...over 10 times the revenue of all other media (movies/tv/music/videogames/etc) combined. If this surprises you, consider J.K. Rowling. She wrote a few books and became an overnight billionaire. How many billionaire artists can you name? In no other industry can this happen...there is simply not enough money to go around.

So far, the book industry has been spared because dead-tree-format is still preferred, but that will change as soon as the iPod-equivalent of the ebook readers hits the market. Then we will see a copyright war bigger that you can imagine. Music and movies were just the boring undercards. This will decide the future of copyright, and it will be bloody.
Oh and that's from a slashdot article on ebooks.