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Home » “THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE AND USEFUL ARTS”: WHY COPYRIGHT TODAY THREATENS INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM

“THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE AND USEFUL ARTS”: WHY COPYRIGHT TODAY THREATENS INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM

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Six months ago I barely knew a copyright from a patent; and not that I am an expert by any means now, but I at least have a basic conception of the issues, the players, the process, and what is at stake. The system as it stands right now is tilted way in the favor of huge corporate copyright holders, for whose benefit Congress keeps extending the copyright period longer and longer.

Here is a very fine report by the Free Expression Policy Project summarizing where we are now and how we got there:

    Executive Summary

    Should teenagers be allowed to swap music over the Internet? Should computer hackers be allowed to decrypt the entertainment industry’s electronic locks on e-books, songs, or movies? Should authors, artists, and their heirs have complete and perpetual control over the sale, copying, and distribution of their creations?

    Copyright law has become a rocky, treacherous field of free-expression battles. It is at the core of today’s controversies in the arts, culture, and scholarship. New laws passed by Congress to aid the companies that make up the “copyright industry” have intensified the debates. These laws have badly upset the “difficult balance” between rewarding creativity through the copyright system and society’s competing interest in the free flow of ideas.

    In 1998, for example, Congress passed the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act,” which delayed the time when creative works will enter the “public domain” to nearly a century for corporations and even longer for many individuals and their heirs. The same year, the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” (DMCA) made it a crime to distribute technology that circumvents electronic locks on books, films, articles, software, or songs — even though circumvention itself is not always illegal, and even though a ban on technology strikes directly at scientific research.

    Lawsuits contesting these new restrictions have had mixed results. A constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono law now awaits decision by the Supreme Court. The government is prosecuting a Russian company under the DMCA for creating a device to decrypt electronic books. Entertainment companies, having shut down the Napster system for swapping music online, are now trying to wipe out other file-sharing programs like Grokster and KaZaA. Meanwhile, scholars, librarians, artists, computer scientists, and many others are working toward a more open, free-speech-friendly copyright system.

    The tension between strong copyright control and free expression today cannot be ignored. We hope this report will provide a useful resource in the ongoing debate and help restore the “difficult balance” between copyright control and free expression.

    Introduction

    The realm of copyright is full of mystery. What is “fair use”? What does it mean for a creative work to enter the “public domain”? And why should we care?

    Copyright law is at the core of today’s hot controversies in the arts, science, and scholarship. Teenagers swapping music online; encryption schemes that lock up e-books, songs, and movies; ever-longer extensions of copyright control — conflict over these issues has caused a crisis in the worlds of creativity and culture.

    With computer technology, these conflicts have intensified. The Internet allows ideas and information to be shared worldwide on a scale never possible before. But technology also enables media companies to exercise unprecedented control over the use of their products through systems of “digital rights management” that undermine traditional “fair uses” of copyrighted works.

    Laws passed by Congress to aid the companies that make up the “copyright industry” have also intensified the debates. Writers, scholars, artists, and free-speech activists, both online and off, have challenged these laws. Some have campaigned for “Free Software” or even advocated an end to copyright protection. Others, including publishers, movie producers, and many authors, artists, and composers, have argued for stronger restrictions on copying and sharing, and longer terms of copyright protection. In between are increasing numbers of citizens who recognize that while copyright serves an important function in advancing science, art, and culture, these new laws have badly upset the “difficult balance” between rewarding creativity through the copyright system and “society’s competing interest in the free flow of ideas, information, and commerce.”1

    This report describes the challenges to art, scholarship, and free expression posed by current copyright law. For many artists, scholars, Web surfers, and lovers of music file-sharing, this may be terra incognita. For almost all of us, it is an area where a relatively small priesthood of lawyers and policymakers communicates in a largely unknown language.

    But the tension between strong copyright control and free expression today cannot be ignored. This report is intended to help inform the debate even though it cannot, obviously, cover all the ins and outs of “intellectual property,” which includes not only copyright, but trademark, patent, and “trade secrets” law. We hope the report will provide a useful guide to the issues while underscoring the vital link between free expression and core elements of the copyright system, such as fair use and the public domain.

Every citizen, especially every netizen, should know these issues.

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