Are Copyrights too Extreme?

After reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity and watching a video called The Amen Break , I think the answer to my title question is a resounding YES.  To be honest, I never thought too much about the role of copyrights in stymying the creative process of our culture.  But both the book and the video raised some serious concerns.  The most pressing, and personal, aspect of the copyright laws is the direct effect it can have on me.  Sorry to be selfish, but before I think of the danger the laws have on our culture, I can’t help but focus on how I could be breaking the law without even knowing it.  The term “all rights reserved” never really caught my attention before, but now when I see that term I’ll be a bit more wary of how I use someone else’s creative property.

I remember when Kazaa was a major player in the world of downloading music.  I certainly didn’t shy away from using it, although I do clearly resent how that program seriously reduced the speed of my computer.  It was just something that everyone I knew did, and being a teenager it was a no-brainer to download a program that could get me music for free rather than buying a CD for $15.  I never worried about the fact that this was an illegal act because I literally only downloaded a single song at a time.  The law was there, but it felt very much in the background and I certainly didn’t feel like a criminal.

Lessig makes an excellent analogy between the users of downloading free music and those that drive over the speed limit.  Technically you’re doing something illegal, but everyone does it and unless you’re downloading an extreme amount of music or driving extremely fast, then it’s hard to see the physical harm you are causing.  I don’t think anyone that drives five miles (or maybe more) over the speed limit would consider themselves to be a criminal.  The same goes for those who use(d) programs like Kazaa to add a song or two to their music library.  But apparently the government sees this differently and based on the extreme penalties for downloading music, you are a criminal if you do it.

This is the major point that hit home with me.  Apparently I know very little (and that’s being generous) about copyright laws.  Much of my knowledge is based on assumptions that are wrong.  While my assumptions are legally wrong, I agree wholeheartedly with Lessig that the penalties for copyright infringement are wildly too extreme and something needs to be done to rationalize the copyright laws.  It doesn’t make much sense to me why anything that has been created has its copyright automatically renewed over and over even if the original creator doesn’t care if it is.  This seems to be an assumption on the government’s part that doesn’t make sense.  If the author or creator cares enough to keep her creations copyrighted that’s fine, but she should be responsible for registering the rights every so often.

Lessig makes an excellent point by frequently discussing the impact that “all rights reserved” can have in preventing creative growth.  If everything is automatically copyrighted, then it becomes very difficult for anyone to build off of someone else’s work.  I said “build off,” not steal or copy directly.  That’s where I believe the major difference is.  Stealing is obviously wrong, but tweaking or expanding on something leads to improvement for our culture as a whole.  Given my academic background, it’s easy for me to compare this to academic standards.  In the field of history, historians are constantly expanding on one another’s ideas.  How many people have written about Custer’s Last Stand?  A lot.  But just because one person wrote that history first doesn’t mean he or she is the only one that has the rights to that portion of history.  Rather, historians constantly tweak, expand, and even challenge the views of both their predecessors and contemporaries.  This is part of growth in academics as well as popular culture.  While I hadn’t really thought about the severity of the copyright laws before, I’m concerned to see if they will have the deleterious effects foreshadowed by Lessig.

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