Copyright Law Is Creating An Information Oligarchy, Not An Information Democracy
The idea behind copyright was simple – creativity would be catalyzed if individuals were given the exclusive right to profit from their works for a period of time. The law was supposed to strike a sensible balance between financial incentives for creators and social benefits.
Early on, that may have been the case, but the law has changed greatly since the first Copyright Act was passed in 1790. Today, copyright does far more to create an information oligarchy than the robust information democracy the drafters of the Constitution and the first act had in mind.
Here is just one of a vast number of examples that shows how copyright has become an obstacle to creativity and the flow of information rather than a catalyst.
You may recall the talk by Larry Summers that sank his Harvard presidency. He happened to say that there might be reasons other than discrimination why there are relatively few women on science faculties. He was promptly attacked for his alleged insensitivity, but initially responded with a statement posted on Harvard’s website saying, “I have nothing to apologize for.”
Summers quickly backtracked when he realized that he was in deep, deep trouble and sought to delete his first reply, but it still remained accessible through Internet Archive.
A few years later, Harry Lewis, who had served as dean of Harvard College under Summers, was working on a book entitled Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (with co-authors Hal Abelson and Ken Ledeen). He wanted to include that deleted Summers statement to demonstrate his point that nothing ever goes away on the Internet. But Harvard claimed that it held the copyright to the site and refused permission for the original statement to be published in the book.
That’s quite astonishing – a widely reported statement made in public by a university president is “protected” against merely copying it? And that isn’t a unique case. Lewis and his co-authors cite other examples. I wrote about another, the University of Missouri’s refusal to release course syllabi for analysis by the National Center for Teacher Quality, in this article posted in September.
The fact of the matter is that copyright is now widely seen as an obstacle to intellectual liberty and creativity. Some scholars now challenge the assumption that we need copyright at all. One of them is Chapman University Law School professor Tom W. Bell.
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