Author: Karl Fogel

Still composite from street interviews, Chicago, 2006

In order to document the public perception of copyright today, we went around Chicago with a video camera over two days in the summer of 2006, asking strangers what they think copyright is for, how it got started, how they feel about filesharing, and for any other thoughts they have on copyright. We didn’t tell the interviewees about this website or the nature of our project until after each interview was over.


The points that showed up consistently were:

  1. Most people felt that copyright is mainly about credit, that is, about preventing plagiarism.

  2. Everyone was on the artist’s side — everyone wants to feel that they’re treating the artists right. Over and over again, we heard the sentiment that when someone goes to a concert they’ll buy the CD “to support the band”, even if they already have all those songs on their computer already.

  3. Many people felt that copyright was about giving creators the means to make a living, but that in recent times it’s been abused and corrupted by corporate interests.

  4. No one — not even the interviewee who had just read a book on copyright — knew where copyright comes from. Most people had the feeling it had been around for a while, though estimates varied widely on how long. One interviewee knew of the Constitutional clause that is the legal basis for copyright in the United States, but wasn’t familiar with the history leading up to that clause.

  5. People were ambivalent about filesharing. They don’t feel like it hurts anyone, except perhaps the music distributors, but they still feel some residual guilt about it anyway.

You can view the video at the Internet Archive. It is also available at Google Video and YouTube.

The video is in the public domain; all participants signed a release form permitting their footage to be used. Many thanks to Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick for their help filming, and to Ben for huge amounts of help with editing.

“The Surprising History of Copyright” is coming to LinuxWorld at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, on Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 3:30pm at the O’Reilly Media exposition booth (#928). I’ll be giving a talk about the history of copyright, how the economics of replication and distribution have changed radically since the 1700’s, and how both creators and publishers can flourish using different strategies than the traditional copyright monopoly.

The slides for the talk “The (Surprising) History of Copyright and What It Means for Open Source” are available in PDF and OpenOffice Presentation formats. The slides are meant to be accompanied by the talk, and don’t really stand by themselves, but I’m providing them for those who didn’t have time to write down the URLs and the bibliography at the talk.

The Google Book Search Library Project promises to be, among other things, the greatest plagiarism detector ever created. So why are the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild suing Google over its plan to digitize millions of books? In the case of the AAP, it’s probably because they understand that copyright law really exists to subsidize distributors, not writers or readers. They’re just looking out for their own interests. Or at least they think they are: it’s much more likely that Google search results will improve book sales than hurt them. In any case, one has to pause at the spectacle of a publishers’ association coming out against readers being able to locate the books they’re looking for more efficiently than ever before. But what’s more interesting, if not exactly unexpected, is that the Authors Guild is reacting in the same way. Here’s what the Guild’s president, Nick Taylor, had to say:

“This is a plain and brazen violation of copyright law. It’s not up to Google or anyone other than the authors, the rightful owners of these copyrights, to decide whether and how their works will be copied.”

How odd. Mostly, authors are not the owners of the copyrights in their work — publishers are. And even in those cases where the author retains copyright, she has usually signed a contract granting exclusive printing and distribution rights to a particular publisher. Nick Taylor’s comment might make sense in some idealistic world where authors typically retain control of their work, but for the authors he represents, the world is rarely like that. Meanwhile, the Authors Guild ignores an amazing possibility opened up by Google’s project: we will be able detect plagiarism with a thoroughness hitherto unthinkable. Google is the world’s premier search engine; they have made billions of dollars matching snippets of text together and displaying the results. After digitizing these texts, the natural thing to do is to start looking for ways to cross-reference them. For legitimate citations, the effect of this will be mere convenience: instead of trudging to the library or bookstore, you can click on a link. But for cases of plagiarism, the effect will be a revolution: whereas in the past, discovering plagiarism required that the same person read both books, it will now be possible to flag potential instances of unattributed copying automatically! So why isn’t the Authors Guild cheering Google on? A clue can be found in the Guild’s self-description, as given at the end of their press release about the Google lawsuit

:

“The Authors Guild is the nation’s largest and oldest society of published authors and the leading writers’ advocate for fair compensation, effective copyright protection, and free expression.”

There’s a subtle bit of cognitive slippage going on there. They start out stating (accurately) that they are the largest society for published authors. But then they go on to claim that they are the leading writers’ advocate for fair compensation, effective copyright protection, and free expression. Where did that slide from representing published authors to representing all authors happen? Anyone who writes is a writer; and thanks to the Internet, any writer who wants to be published can be, by simply making their work available on the Web. This is not wordplay, it is a fundamentally important fact of modern information distribution, as many popular bloggers have learned. The Author’s Guild does not represent most authors anymore, if it ever did. It represents a tiny minority of authors: those whose works have been found fit for distribution by a certain kind of publisher, the kind that makes a massive initial investment in a print run and then depends on strict monopoly control of the copyright to recover that investment. Tellingly, the Guild’s identifying statement doesn’t contain a word about plagiarism, a threat faced by all authors. While texts may be shareable resources, reputation and credit are not: plagiarism is a concern for all writers, no matter how their work is distributed. Yet the Guild’s omission isn’t limited to that one press release. A search for the word “plagiarism” across their entire web site returns only this:

Search word: plagiarism 0 results found.

Perhaps the Guild thinks that the phrase “effective copyright protection” includes plagiarism, but as we have noted elsewhere, copyright “protection” is really not about plagiarism: one can permit limitless attributed copying without approving of or permitting plagiarism. The two are separate, and the Authors Guild, of all organizations, should know this. The Authors Guild’s heart is in the right place; the problem is just that they’ve bought the industry myth: that authors’ interests are always the same as publishers’. If the AG really wants to look out for the interests of all authors, not just the small percentage with successful monopoly-based publishing arrangements, they’ll knock on Google’s door and ask how they can help. Instead, they’re suing for copyright violation, even though what Google is doing is both well within the bounds of so-called “fair use” and enormously beneficial to the Guild’s members. The Great Cross-Referencing has begun. Let us hope the Authors Guild sees the light and allows it to continue.

[Postscript: When I first wrote this article, I wasn’t aware that Amazon had already been doing in-book searching for some time. This means that Amazon could do automated plagiarism detection as well, and perhaps there are other organizations in the same position. But note that Amazon is not the target of publishing industry lawsuits, probably because Amazon negotiated with publishers for access to book text, rather than just scanning it in the way Google did.]