Copyright – it's not just about MP3s

by Suw on May 29, 2004

Just two examples that illustrate further how out-of-hand copyright law is now.
Reynolds works for the London Ambulance Service, and has just been on a course covering new treatment guidelines. He and his colleagues will, however, be getting an out-of-date version of the course handbook because the copyright holders won't allow the London Ambulance Service to edit the newest version so that it is more relevant to London.
Result: Londoners won't be getting the best health care because of copyright.
A less dramatic, but in a way more alarming example is the conversation I've just had with my Mum. She knits, and sometimes sells what she has knitted to her friends or on eBay. Today she was given a magazine with a knitting pattern for a Thomas The Tank Engine child's jumper.
“You know something about copyright,” she said. “If I knit this, will I get in trouble?”
The very fact that my Mum is worried about being sued for knitting a jumper shows how pervasive the threats of retribution from copyright holders has become. I don't believe that damage would be done to any of the Thomas The Tank Engine rights holders by the knitting of a jumper for a small child, even if it was sold on eBay. Common sense used to recognise that fact and react accordingly.
But common sense has been bludgeoned into submission by the actions of the RIAA and others who are quite happy to sue children and grandparents for the most minor infringement. Suddenly, 'Am I going to get sued for this?' is not the stupid question it would have been even a couple of years ago, because selling something on eBay immediately opens up the possibility of being tracked down and prosecuted.
Result: Copyrights are no more secure now than they were before, but people are thinking twice about engaging in previously commonplace activities.
Absence of evidence
Of course, the latter example, you could say, it's just one person. Not very important at all. Who cares if one person does or doesn't knit a jumper? But to me, the unimportance of this is exactly why it is important.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a meeting at LIFT to discuss Lawrence Lessig's lecture last Thursday. LIFT had brought together a small group of people knowledgeable about the issues covered in Free Culture (so god knows what I was doing there!), and one of the questions raised was 'Where is the evidence for the harm that Lessig discusses? Where is the mischief caused by current copyright laws?'.
The point was that there is little or no quantitative evidence of the damage done by copyright. All the evidence is anecdotal and, to some people, anecdotal material has no value and therefore cannot be cited as evidence.
Compare with something like smoking. Whenever there's a report on the news about the effects of smoking, we are bombarded with statistics: how many people die from smoking-related illnesses, how much money treating smokers costs the health service, how much it costs the economy. We see figures and from those figures we infer meaning. The harm done is not only clear, it's quantifiable.
The problem with much of the harm done by copyright is that it is 'invisible' – when someone is prevented from doing something that they otherwise would have done, it is impossible to quantify that effect. You're looking for something that's missing, but which you cannot see is missing.
When someone steals your driveway you can see what is missing because there is a big hole where your driveway once was. With the harm done by copyright, it's the equivalent not of your driveway being taken away, but of your driveway never having been paved in the first place.
The important thing about my Mum worrying about getting sued for breach of copyright is that what she wants to do is so supremely unimportant. The chances of her actually getting sued are very low. Yet for a moment there she was considering not doing something she would otherwise have done.
I wonder how many other small acts of creation are now not done because of fears over litigation? How impoverished does our culture and community have to become before the effect of widespread unimportant noncreation is noticeable? How do you quantify this? How do you prove the harm done?

Anonymous May 29, 2004 at 5:39 pm

No-one asks for figures to prove the worth of artistic creations; they are part of our culture and without them we lack a collective identity. At the lecture on Thurs Lessig stated that his aim was to get several million linkbacks to the Creative Commons license. Perhaps that is how we provide figures that people value freedom from excessive IP regulation. It was great to finally see Lessig speak anyway; even if they stopped us lay-men getting in to the Morgan Stanley reception at the end grrr! 🙂

Anonymous May 30, 2004 at 9:35 am

One way to quantify the harm done by copyroght laws is to do a study of the countries that did ( or do ) not respect copyright laws. This was the case of Japan and South Korea in the past. What Japan and South Korea would have been if they scrupulously respected the copyright laws in the 50's, 60's and 70's ? Japan and Korea would have been as developped as they are now ? I think this kind of studies are possible.

Anonymous May 30, 2004 at 9:37 am

The obove comment is from me : Yenayer
( my english is not too good )

Anonymous May 30, 2004 at 11:39 am

Is your mother concerned about copyright because you are her daughter and therefore has listened to you talking about it?
My mum saw the “Brother bear” film advertised on the telly and asked my brother if he could download it for her…

Anonymous May 30, 2004 at 5:12 pm

Reynolds, you could have a point there. I hadn't thought I'd whittered on about copyright all that much, but, well, I whitter a lot so I guess it's a fairly strong possibility.
That's the trouble though – these are biological systems we're trying to gather information on, so there's no telling whether she would have had the same thought had I not ever mentioned copyright. There's no way to go back and find out, because the experiment is 100% non-repeatable.

Anonymous May 30, 2004 at 5:15 pm

Yenayer: Yes, that would certainly make for an interesting study. I shall have to find the time to talk to some of my Japanese friends and see if they have any insights.

Anonymous July 21, 2005 at 11:43 pm

Um, a little off topic, but do you know the name and issue of the magazine? I'm desperately looking for a Thomas jumper knit pattern. Thanks.

Anonymous July 22, 2005 at 7:58 am

I don't, but I'll ask my Mum.

Anonymous July 23, 2005 at 5:03 pm

Thanks very much 🙂 The power of the blogosphere, once again!

Anonymous October 23, 2005 at 1:14 am

I recently asked the owners of the Doctor Who Shop in Manor Park, if they could sugest a character from which I could produce a ceramic figure (currently developing sculptural skils) which they might be able to offer for sale on my behalf and this issue came up an scuppered the idea. I walked 200 yards down the road and made the same suggestionat a Hindu book and record shop and they were full of sugestions. Apparently no copyright on Sita and Shiva. Keep up the good work. By-the way I like the photographs and your jewelry

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