Another Tech Talk

Google Video also has a Tech Talk on it about the history of copyright law, which was fascinating. He isn’t great about handling the questions at the end, but the talk itself is pretty good.

In the 1400’s, Gutenberg invented the printing press, and its use spread to England shortly thereafter. At the time, there was no such thing as copyright law, and it was a free-for-all: people published their own stuff, they plagiarized other people’s stuff and passed it off as their own. Strangely, they also had reverse plagiarism: people would publish their own works under the names of famous people to get more publicity for their writings. Also, unpopular lords and other politicians would have slanderous things published in their names. To stop these smear campaigns, the government created a Company of Stationers and mandated that they were the only ones who could have printing presses and that everything they wrote had to be approved by the government before publication. This was the birth of copyright: it was created to give a government censoring power. Stationers were given complete rights over the works they published, and the actual authors were thrown by the wayside.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament was going to disband the Company to get rid of the censorship it stood for. Seeing their entire livelyhood in jeopardy, the Company began to lobby Parliament, claiming that without them, England would go back to the plagiarism/reverse plagiarism from before. Parliament bought this, and allowed the Guild to keep its monopoly on publishing.

When the US Constitution was written, they included a note allowing Congress to pass similar laws to avoid the threat of plagiarism in America as well.

The RIAA and MPAA are fond of arguing that file sharing and other copyright “infringement” hurts artists. However, it usually helps the artists instead, because they normally either lose money or break even when making books/CDs/etc, and make their money by selling tickets to talks/concerts/etc. There are a few superstars that don’t fit into this pattern (such as Stephen King), but they are the very unusual exception. In reality, file sharing helps the vast majority of artists by bringing their works to a wider audience, which increases ticket sales.

The main difference between traditional copyright infringement and file sharing is that file sharing makes perfect copies. When copyright was invented, to make a bootleg copy of a book, you needed to typeset each word over again. If there were pictures in a book, it was just about hopeless to recreate them correctly. Whoever was creating the new printing plates would often edit out boring parts of a book, or embellish parts they really liked. Consequently, copyright law helped artists indirectly by keeping their works as originals, instead of having them changed by copyers. On the internet, the opposite is true: it is very easy to make exact, perfect copies that are attributed correctly to the authors, while it is much harder to make inexact copies because this typically requires some human input. Consequently, more things are correctly passed on and credit is more accurately attributed on the internet than in actual books. Moreover, if there is a disagreement between which version of a work was the original, it is easy to decide which appeared on the internet first (using the Internet Archive, Google cache, or a similar tool) compared to deciding which came first in the physical world, where different people are aware of different things, and perspectives can differ greatly.

Copyright laws are going to continue getting stronger and stronger until we put our feet down and say that there should be more Fair Use clauses, and mention that recording studios are really middlemen that can now be eliminated without doing much harm to any of the actual creators. Just because filesharing is illegal does not mean it is wrong and should be shunned.

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