Clarity on Copyright: The Purpose of Copyright Law – It’s Not What You Think

August 16, 2010

In the digital age with the almost frictionless ability to reproduce audio, video and text the issue of copyright has entered the mainstream in a big way. No longer the rarified domain of intellectual property attorneys, copyright issues make the news with the regularity of the latest RIAA lawsuit over the unauthorized sharing of music files and the current sturm and drang over Wikileaks posting of the Afghan War Diary.

It seems people only remember the first half of Stewart Brand’s famous pronouncement in 1987, “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive . . .That tension will not go away.” In 1984 at the first Hackers Conference, Brand put it in a more nuanced way:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Thanks to the good folks at TechDirt for linking to this excellent article by attorney and associate professor Lydia Pallas Lorn of Northwestern’s School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, The Purpose of Copyright Law.

Copyright and patent law derives from a clause in the US constitution and “the primary purpose of copyright is not, as many people believe, to protect authors against those who would steal the fruits of their labor,” according to the author. The purpose of copyright is “to promote the progress of knowledge and learning.”

Pallas Loren traces the origin of this concept from English common law and the early publishing industry to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and beyond. I believe this is essential reading for anyone who creates content today – from the lowly blog scribe all the way up to Lady Gaga. Understanding copyright is necessary and Lydia Pallas Loren lays it all out clearly and definitively, in my opinion.

I wish the web contained more writing of this quality and thoughtfulness and less gossip, opinions, trivia and noise about disposable celebrities and manufactured scandals. ” ‘Tis of no importance what bats and oxen think.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.


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