Wikipedia has announced that it will shut for a day, in protest about threatened restrictions in the USA which will enable rights-holders to shut down sites that breach copyright. My website, like the rest of my writing, is scrupulously referenced, but I have considerable sympathy for Wikipedia’s position. The laws on copyright present a serious obstacle to learning, communication and intellectual development.
As a writer, my work is often used by other people without any form of recognition. Students, journalists and some academics routinely borrow from, copy or plagiarise what I have written. This may rankle, because it’s rude and incompetent, but for the most part I have to put up with it. To publish a work is to place it in the public domain. I expect – or hope – that my work will be read, discussed, and disseminated. The most disappointing experience is not when my work is cited without payment or acknowledgement, but when it sinks under the waterline. I’d much rather that people read and used my ideas than that they didn’t, and I’ve never encountered an academic who thinks differently.
The laws do not work in the interests of people like me; they work against us. The main effect of current rules about copyright, for any teacher, researcher or writer of non-fiction, is to restrict the ability to cite, illustrate points and argue with positions. I can’t use extended quotes from historic figures like Keynes or Beveridge. I’m barred from duplicating some texts first published in the sixteenth century. I can’t afford to use any photos in my books – the standard fees for two or three photos will consume all the royalties for eighteen months’ work. Many respectable peer-reviewed journals insist on full assignment of copyright, without payment. The primary function of the copyright laws is to defend, not the creators of intellectual property, but the interests of the businesses who have secured the rights.
Laws have to be developed to permit the free flow of information. The main rights that need to be protected are the rights of commerce – that people cannot present themselves as someone else, and people should know what they are buying. The laws go much further than they need to do to make that possible. The current rules on copyright, related to the time of death and some bizarre rules about assertion of rights, make it fiendishly difficult to decipher what is available for duplication, what isn’t, and who owns the rights. There’s only one kind of restriction that stands a chance of being understood and respected – that is, as we have with patents, a right to exclusive production for a limited, fixed period of time following publication. And that’s not what the law says or does.