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Busting Out of the Cage

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Copyright has to be radically changed to reflect the realities of the brave new digital world. You may not like it, but the only way to compensate creators, to give the average creator the incentive to continue to create, is some form of copyright tax, as I have mentioned many times now. Otherwise, our civil liberties will continue to be eroded by a blindered, monomaniacal entertainment industry and its toadies in government and enablers in consumer electronics.

I am weary and bored with kneejerk reations in the negative: the status quo is utterly unacceptable, anarchy is unacceptable, constriction of my civil liberties is unacceptable. Either come up with something better or get the hell out of the way.

Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain lays it all out in “The Copyright Cage“:

    Bars can’t have TVs bigger than 55 inches. Teddy bears can’t include tape decks. Girl Scouts who sing “Puff, the Magic Dragon” owe royalties. Copyright law needs to change.

    A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO I WAS TALKING WITH A LAW SCHOOL COLLEAGUE about cyberlaw and the people who study it. “I’ve always wondered,” he said, “why all the cyberprofs hate copyright.”

    I don’t actually hate copyright, and yet I knew just what he meant. Almost all of us who study and write about the law of cyberspace agree that copyright law is a big mess. As far as I can tell, federal courts experts don’t reject our system of federal courts, and criminal law experts split every which way on the overall virtue of the criminal justice system. So what’s with our uniform discontent about copyright?

    I think an answer can be gleaned from tax scholars. Without decrying the concept of taxation, every tax professor I’ve met regards the U.S. tax code with a kind of benign contempt, explaining it more often as a product of diverse interests shaped from the bottom up than as an elegant set of rules crafted by legal artisans to align with high-level principles.

    Copyright is like that, too. While I hate its Platonic form no more than the typical tax maven hates Tax, I find myself struggling to maintain the benign part of my contempt for its ever-expanding 21st-century American incarnation. A gerrymandered tax code primarily costs the public money – measured by overall inefficiency or extra taxes unfairly levied on those without political capital. But copyright’s cost is measured by the more important if inchoate currency of thoughts and ideas.

    We live today under two copyright regimes: the law on the one hand and reality as experienced by the public on the other. The law – Title 17 of the federal code – proscribes such acts as the public performance of music without payment to the composer or the copying of books without permission of the author (or more likely the company to whom the author long ago assigned rights).

    The limits on behavior enumerated in Title 17 have gone far beyond the wholesale copying of books, maps, and charts covered by the first copyright act of 1790. They extend to computer software, dances, boat hulls (delineated in a 1998 amendment as “the frame or body of a vessel including the deck of a vessel, exclusive of masts, sails, yards, and rigging”), and music – Congress covered performances in 1909 and copies of sound recordings in 1971. What the public can and can’t do is described at a level of detail worthy of the most byzantine tax code.

    ….It’s time for us to wise up and to redraw copyright’s boundaries so that the law and reasonable public expectations fall into better alignment with one another. To be sure, this may require more, rather than less, subtlety. We should treat protections for computer software in a different way than music, for example, and lengthy copyright terms should be available only to those who bother to check in with the Copyright Office every few years. But we do ourselves a disservice by fixating on current income structures and not thinking about future possibilities premised on amazing technological advances, especially when the rights at issue concern the flows of ideas, something fundamental to free societies.

    Scholars like William Fisher of Harvard Law School have floated ideas as sensible as they are radical – not to mention offensive to almost every interest in the copyright debates, from publisher to middleman to anarchist. He suggests in an upcoming book that ISPs remit to publishers a fee loosely based on the amount of copyrighted digital content that they are roughly calculated to be carrying, at which point people can trade music to their hearts’ content.

    Overhauling copyright will have costs to some. In the absence of tough copyright controls, investors may decide not to underwrite a $200 million blockbuster film because copying of the final product may unduly reduce their expected profit. But the cost of making no change at all must also be soberly assessed because the Internet offers such a staggering potential for the rapid transformation and evolution of ideas—a veritable Jazz Age of creation enabled by technology.

    I pay my taxes. I have no idea how to calculate them, but I do what Turbotax tells me to. I’ll pay a copyright tax, too, and willingly support artists whose work I appreciate, because it’s the right thing to do and because it guarantees that more work will be made available to me. I’m not alone. So: Let’s imagine a world in which Teddy Ruxpin can say whatever he wants, where kids can play with computers that are not digitally locked down, where bars and restaurants can stop measuring their TVs and their parking lots, and where amateur webcasters can create thousands of radio stations featuring songs we like, perhaps ones that sound familiar but that have new elements to them. We’ll still buy concert tickets, books, and CDs and their digital descendants. They’ll be competing with a lot more, though – created for fun, even if it happens to turn a profit. [Legal Affairs]

Many of the finest legal minds in the country are coming to the same conclusion – unless you can come up with a better answer, get in line or get out of the way and shut up about it.

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