Author: Karl Fogel

Books in a jail cell.At QCO we make a point of calling things by their right names, and of encouraging others to do so.  For example, we always talk about “copyright restrictions“, instead of using the pro-monopoly propaganda word “copyright protection”.  Try it yourself: if you consistently substitute restrict for protect, and restriction for protection, when talking about copyright, it will always work grammatically and it will be more accurate.

The information monopoly industries would much prefer us to talk about “protection”, of course, by which they mean protection of their business model.  But most of us don’t say “pre-owned car” just because used car dealers would rather we said that instead of “used car”, and we can use the same principle of calling things what they are when it comes to copyright.

However, most media outlets (not to mention even other copyright reformers and abolitionists, sadly) still usually take the path of least resistance and continue using the term “protection”.  This may be partly because it lends an air of legalistic authority: lawyers almost always call it “protection”, not just for copyrights but also in the unfortunately consonant phrase “patent protection” and in the conceptually incoherent “intellectual property protection”.

That’s why I nearly jumped out of my airplane seat when I opened the New York Times this Friday, April 25th, and saw Farhad Manjoo‘s article “The Cloud Roots for Aereo, but People Need Better“.  It was the first time I’d seen anyone in a major mainstream media publication use the term “copyright restrictions” where most journalists would have said “copyright protections”.  Here’s the exact excerpt, starting from the beginning of the article:

“The best way to think about Aereo, the company at the center of this week’s Supreme Court battle over the future of computing, is as as an example of legal performance art.  Aero is based entirely on a legalistic leap of faith: If it’s legal to set up an antenna and record a TV show at your own house, which it is, shouldn’t it also be legal to rent an antenna and server space at a big data center, and then stream the show over the Internet to your computer, tablet or set-top box?

 

It’s a clever argument, one that highlights the extreme lengths that tech companies go to to avoid copyright restrictions. …”

Not only that, he never refers to restrictions as “protection” anywhere in the article.  Later he even repeats “restrict”, again accurately, and with a directness that has been too often missing from many others’ writings on this topic:

“Aereo is based on a loophole. To offer TV shows over the Internet, most streaming services like Netflix or Hulu pay licensing fees to studios. But licensing is expensive and restrictive; …”

Why, it’s almost as if he’s determined to report what’s actually going on!

I’ve been a fan of Farhad Manjoo for a while, so it’s gratifying to see him taking such care with language here.  But just to be clear, there’s no behind-the-scenes nudging going on, at least not by me: I’ve never met nor communicated with Manjoo.  Also, we have no reason to count him (or for that matter not count him) among those for radical reform or abolition of the current copyright system.  I don’t know anything about his political beliefs in this area, and his insistence on using accurate language doesn’t say anything about those beliefs.  It just tells us he’s trying to be a good writer, one who uses the most appropriate word despite environmental pressure to do otherwise.  Let’s hope he influences some of his colleagues to be equally accurate.

RE/Mixed Media Festival logo.

We’ve been fans of what the RE/Mixed Media Festival is up to ever since we first heard about it in 2010.  Now they’re in their fourth year!  The next one will take place at the New School in New York City, the weekend of April 26-27.  They’ve kindly offered our readers a registration discount, too — use the promotional code “QUESTION” to get 50% off.

In their own words:

RE/Mixed Media Festival, taking place on April 26-27 at The New School and CultureHub, is an annual celebration of collaborative art-making and creative appropriation. It’s the artists’ contribution to the ongoing conversation about remixing, mashups, copyright law, fair use, and the freedom of artists to access their culture in order to build upon it. Each year, the festival features performances, panel discussions, workshops, electronic remixing/hacking, sampling, film & video, fashion, DJs, technology, interactive installations, painting, sculpture, software, and much more.

Now in it’s fourth year, RE/Mixed Media Festival is a hybrid event – a marriage of art exhibition and critical academic conference, a forum where artists, activists, scholars, musicians, writers, entertainment professionals, and policymakers come together to collectively re-examine the role of creative appropriation in the arts, and the roles of artists, government and industry in creating and maintaining a free and open culture.

RE/Mixed Media Festival IV is pleased to welcome media theorist Lev Manovich and author David Shields as keynote speakers, as well as the NY opening of DJ Spooky‘s international art and design exhibit, The Imaginary App. Other 2014 artists hail from 13 countries, and include 15 students, alumni, and faculty from The New School of Public Engagement’s School of Media Studies and Parsons The New School for Design. Past artists and scholars have included Moby, Steinski, Ricky Powell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jesper Juul, Nitin Sawhney and over 150 other artists, performers, educators, activists, musicians and DJs.

Details:

   Saturday, April 26
      10 AM – 5 PM: The New School
         Theresa Lang Center and Dorothy Hirshon Suite: 55 W 13 St.
         The Auditorium at 66 W 12 St.
         Anna Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium, 66 5th Avenue.
      6 PM – 10 PM: CultureHub, 47 Great Jones Street

   Sunday, April 27
      10 AM – 6 PM: The New School
         Theresa Lang Center and Dorothy Hirshon Suite: 55 W 13 St.

NOTE: Registration and check-in will take place at Theresa Lang Center on both Saturday and Sunday.  See remixnyc.com.

QCO Education icon.Professor Howard Besser of New York University is offering a course at the Tisch School of Arts this Spring entitled Free Culture & Open Access, and he’s released the syllabus online.  It’s such a good list of introductory sources (and speakers) on the free culture movement that we wanted to point to it from here:

besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/Classes/14free-culture-syllabus.pdf

Several QCO articles, and the work of our Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley, are listed in the syllabus.  Also very nice to see is the trouble Prof. Besser took toward the end of the syllabus to define plagiarism accurately and not confuse it with mere unauthorized copying (simply put: copying a song is not the same as claiming you wrote it!).  As we wrote back in 2007, this is not something NYU has always been clear on, though to be fair, the current Tisch School of the Arts Academic Integrity Policy seems to have thought about it more carefully.

We asked Prof. Besser “Will you be suggesting to the students that they release their own papers for the course under non-restrictive licenses?” and got a delightful answer:

Since 1994 I’ve been asking my students to make all their work for my classes publicly available
   http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/impact/ (choose “Student Papers”)
   http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/studentwork.shtml
We are now transitioning into explicit CC licenses.

It appears the students are in good hands!  Best of luck to Prof. Besser and the class.

A while ago, Danny Colligan (author of the wonderfully rigorous & thorough “What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright“) sent us a link to a new short piece he’d written, about public subsidies for artists and how to set them up so they result in more freedom, not more restriction.  It’s here:

thegreatkladderadatsch.blogspot.com/2013/07/addendum-to-what-we-lose-when-we.html

Quoting:

There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists.  Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system.  Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work. Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence).  In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system.  The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.

Yes.  This shouldn’t even be a hard call.  Public money should result in public goods.

It’s been a little over a month since the November 6th fire that destroyed the scanning center building at the Internet Archive.  No one was hurt, but as Archive founder Brewster Kahle wrote in a blog post from November 6th (emphasis added):

We lost maybe 20 boxes of books and film, some irreplaceable, most already digitized, and some replaceable.   From our point of view this is the worst part.   We lost an array cameras, lights, and scanning equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Insurance will cover some but not all of this.

The Internet Archive is far more important to the long-term interests of Internet users than, say, Facebook, and they’ll make a little go a long way.  If you can, please donate to help them recover and grow.  I just sent in a check for $200 — which really means $800 for the Archive, because…

Donations made before 2014 are being matched three-to-one by an anonymous donor!

So, if you can, please give.  There are few more obvious calls on the Internet right now!

Internet Archive, showing fire damage to scanning center building.

I can’t stress this enough — if you’re still wondering about the connection between copyright and civil liberties, nothing could make it clearer than Eben Moglen’s four-lecture series Snowden and the Future at Columbia Law School in New York City. The fourth lecture is this coming Wednesday, December 4th, at 4:30pm (Eastern US) in Room 101 of Jerome Greene Hall:

If you are in New York City on Wednesday, we strongly recommend going to that fourth and last lecture. Transcripts of the first three are already online (though I found them worth watching on video). Quoting from the third:

privacy is an ecological rather than a transactional substance

Moglen goes on to explain why very eloquently. It is a point of prime concern to copyright resistors: when every email, every post in a social network, every online communication among human beings, is subject to surveillance, then the system will always err in one direction: toward over-enforcement of already overly-strong restrictions. Surveillance naturally serves monopoly: the watcher is centralized, the watched decentralized. Thus, for example, it becomes your problem to fight fraudulent takedowns and other censorship, rather than being the censor’s problem to justify the restrictions in the first place.

Thursday, 12 Dec: Eben Moglen and Bruce Schneier:

Then on Thursday the 12th at 6:30pm ET, Prof. Moglen will be talking with the renowned security expert Bruce Schneier about what we can learn from the Edward Snowden documents and from the NSA’s efforts to weaken global cryptography, and how we can keep free software tools from being subverted. That event is also at Jerome Greene Hall; see here for details.


There is no freedom of thought without freedom of communication, and ultimately there is no freedom of communication without privacy. Privacy means secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy for individuals freely associating.

Monopoly will never argue for this. People have to do it. Copyright restrictions originated in centralized censorship and are increasingly supported by centralized surveillance. No one is analyzing the larger dynamic of surveillance better than Prof. Moglen. If you’re in New York this Wednesday and next Thursday, you know where to go.

(Previous post in this series here.)


Eben Moglen speaking.Eben Moglen will be giving a series of four public talks in New York City, entitled “Snowden and the Future”, starting Wednesday, October 4th (the other dates are Oct. 30th, Nov 13th, and Dec 4th, all Wednesdays).

All talks will take place at Columbia Law School, in room 101 of Jerome Greene Hall (map), from 4:30pm – 5:30pm.  For those who can’t be there, streaming video of the events as they take place will be available from snowdenandthefuture.info.

Why you should go to these talks:

The connection between copyright restrictions and civil liberties violations is clear and unavoidable.  We’ve written about it here (and here and here and here).  It’s been the key to the Pirate Party’s political success in Europe, and the subject of one of Nina Paley’s excellent minute memes.  Eben Moglen,  the founder and director of the Software Freedom Law Center, is one of the clearest thinkers talking about digital freedom today — and one of the most inspiring: a previous public lecture of his led directly to the creation of the Freedom Box Foundation.  He’s also a terrific speaker.  You won’t be disappointed; go, and bring all your friends.

The surveillance state is aided and enabled by information monopolists who assert that watching people’s Internet usage for unauthorized use of copyrighted material is so important that it trumps both privacy concerns and freedom of expression.  That’s why we keep a close eye on surveillance news here at QuestionCopyright.org, and encourage you to as well.

For more information on these lectures, visit snowdenandthefuture.info.

Tupi logo.

QuestionCopyright.org has pledged $500.00 to the Tupi 2D Animation Software Kickstarter campaign, and we’re posting this to help spread the word.

Please join us and the other project backers, with whatever amount you can pledge!  Remember, your pledge is only called in if Tupi reaches their $30,000 goal by September 26th.

Tupi is already runnable code.  They’re on version 0.2 right now, and their goal in this campaign is to reach their 1.0 feature set, including installers for Macintosh and Windows.  (It’s already packaged for Debian and Ubuntu GNU/Linux; I’ve installed it.)

Our Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley (who also backed Tupi’s campaign personally) explained very well why projects like Tupi are important, in her post “It’s 2013.  Do you know where my Free vector animation software is?”.  When you’re an artist, you’re dependent on your tools — and that means when someone has a monopoly over your tools, they can play havoc with your art and your livelihood.  That’s exactly what happened with Adobe’s Macromedia Flash 8.  Read Nina’s post for the details, but basically Adobe decided to remove features from their Flash authoring software, in order to sell those features separately in other programs.  As Nina points out, the problem with this isn’t just the extra expense, it’s the increase in workload and production time.  And the looming threat that they might do it again in the next version.  They can yank the rug out from under their users at any time, and there’s nothing the users can do about it, except refuse to upgrade (which becomes less and less feasible as time goes on, of course).

Free, open source programs can’t do this to their users, because no one has a monopoly over the software.  If one group puts out a version of the software that is missing important features, users will shrug and start using a competing fork that treats them better.  It also means that if enough artists need a particular bugfix or improvement in the software, they have a path to make it happen — they don’t have to be programmers, as long as they can band together and hire programmers.  Users are not vulnerable to arbitrary decisions handed down from management, they way they are with proprietary software.  (Of course, the more likely scenario is that artists would band together and just pay Tupi’s original development team to make the necessary changes.  The fact that the users have the option to go elsewhere is precisely what makes the original authors likely to be responsive to true demand — a free-market ideal that proprietary software is structurally biased against attaining.)

Tupi has another thing going for it: Nina, an extremely experienced animator who knows the major competing proprietary tool very well, has publicly volunteered to test and provide feedback to open source animation projects, including Tupi.  (Nina says “Tupi’s strength is its simplicity; it’s great for kids and anyone new to animation. It doesn’t yet have the power I need to produce feature films, but its development is a good thing for all of us. …”)

So please help spread the word about Tupi’s Kickstarter campaign! (Here are links to retweet or redent our posts about it.)  You can read more about Tupi here, and this is their campaign video:

Happy Birthday cupcake.A documentary film company making a movie about the “Happy Birthday” song has filed a lawsuit against the music monopolist Warner/Chappell, asking it to return the hundreds of millions of dollars it has collected over the years in improper royalties for the public domain song “Happy Birthday”.

Claiming a monopoly they don’t even have, and then extorting people for it?  I just have no problem with suing over that.  This issue has been raised for years, but the amount Warner/Chappell asks from any given target is always less than it would cost to fight it in court, so people just paid up.  Until now.  (Warner/Chappell is hardly alone in this business model, by the way.)

The evidence in the filing looks pretty thorough, too (thanks to Techdirt and BoingBoing for their posts on this):

The full lawsuit, embedded below, goes through a detailed history of the song and any possible copyright claims around it. It covers the basic history of “Good Morning to You,” but also notes that the “happy birthday” lyrics appeared by 1901 at the latest, citing a January 1901 edition of Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal which describes children singing a song called “happy birthday to you.” They also point to a 1907 book that uses a similar structure for a song called “good-bye to you” which also notes that you can sing “happy birthday to you” using the same music. In 1911, the full “lyrics” to Happy Birthday to You were published, with a notation that it’s “sung to the same tune as ‘Good Morning.'” There’s much more in the history basically showing that the eventual copyright that Warner/Chappell holds is almost entirely unrelated to the song Happy Birthday to You.

The Techdirt post shows the full text of the suit.

[This is an editorial we submitted to the New York Times. They didn’t print it, alas — don’t worry, we’ll keep trying with other pieces — but we still think its message is important, so we’re publishing it here.]

In the last weeks of 2012, Dr. Oliver Sacks published a memorable essay in the New York Times Book Review, “Reading the Fine Print”, about how fewer and fewer books are being made available in large-print editions, and how this matters more and more to him as his vision deteriorates.

Let’s stop to ask: Why are they not available? Who or what, exactly, is behind this scarcity?

Sacks’s essay does not contain the word “copyright”. He looks everywhere else, attributing the decline of large-print editions to the rise of audiobooks (which he dislikes because they are a less engaging experience) and of digital reading devices like the Nook and the Kindle (which are difficult for him to use). After visiting the ravaged large-print section of the Strand bookstore in New York, he writes: “I came out frustrated, and furious: did publishers think the visually impaired were intellectually impaired too?”

This is the closest he comes to identifying the real cause of the problem, a cause entirely of our own making. If there is a ready demand for large-print books — and there is — then what can the explanation be, in a free market, for the steadily shrinking supply?

The answer, of course, is that we do not have a free market in books. We have a monopoly-controlled market: if the copyright holder decides not to offer a large-print edition, then those who need such an edition are out of luck. It does not matter that the readers would happily subsidize the print runs themselves, Kickstarter-style; it does not matter that many smaller and specialty publishers would gladly step into the gap to supply what the big players have decided isn’t worth the effort; it does not matter that on-demand print services would eagerly make large-print texts available in an instant, bound and ready to ship, if only they were allowed to. The system we use now does not permit any of these bottom-up solutions to happen at sustainable scale, because in a world where we’ve just built a gigantic, globe-spanning, low-cost copying machine — the Internet — we have also elected to keep, and indeed tighten, a monopolistic distribution system originally designed to regulate printing presses in the late seventeenth century.

That word “monopoly” shouldn’t be controversial. We’re used to hearing it about things like liquor distributorships in pliant jurisdictions, or energy utilities that successfully legislate competition out of the way. But if the word applies to anything, it surely applies to copyright: a government-enforced right to be the sole supplier of a text, song, etc, including the right to dictate which formats and which distribution channels copies and variants may circulate in. You’d think we’d be fairly cautious in handing out such a power, but instead in recent decades the monopoly lobby (to be fair, the sound recording and movie industries took the lead, more than the book publishers) have gotten it extended far beyond its original scope, both in terms of its per-work duration and of its censoring powers.

Once you start to see it as a policy choice, rather than as a law of nature — the latter being how that lobby would prefer you to think of it — all sorts of phenomena begin to look different. It’s not just about large-print editions. Do you have any idea how many translations are suppressed because rights cannot be negotiated? How many audio books are not recorded because the sole rights-holder couldn’t be interested enough to do it themselves, yet is still willing to prevent anyone else from doing it? Did you know that neither the FDA nor private-sector patient protection organizations can review crucial software code in medical devices, because the manufacturers assert copyright and refuse to circulate the code?

For that matter, should George Lucas be the only person in the world who can make Star Wars movies, no matter how badly he botches them? The issue is not that Lucas shouldn’t be free to make any movie he wants, it’s that the pernicious nature of monopoly, and of the “get permission first” culture it creates, means there is not true competition in the market: no one else is free to try and do better.

The industry’s response to this would be, as it has been for centuries, that it is the only way to pay authors. This is laughable. The system was not designed to pay authors and mostly does a lousy job of that. It was really designed to subsidize, and to a lesser degree regulate, distributors, which it accomplishes very well — otherwise they would not argue so regularly and noisily for its expansion.

There’s no shortage of concrete recommendations to improve the situation. My organization is but one of many calling for us to step back from the brink and return to treating culture as something people don’t need permission to participate in. For starters: bring back registration requirements and renewals; require a fee to maintain a monopoly license; distinguish attribution law from copying law (their current conflation is both the result and the servant of the monopolist’s cause); do away with retroactive extensions, retroactively; shorten copyright terms; etc.

But what we need first is a fundamental change in how we think about copyright. It is not a natural law, nor is it even rooted in the common-law doctrine of property ownership. It is a monopoly created by statute, with only the purposes and powers given to it by statute. If it’s not doing what most people want it to do, we can and should fix it, without sentimental and historically suspect notions that a three-century old industrial regulation is somehow the shield of the artist. Indeed, the current system hurts artists perhaps most of all.

There are signs that the dam is starting to break. Recently, a researcher with the Republican Study Committee circulated a position paper [1] that said nothing more shocking than what I’ve said above: that copyright is a monopoly-based policy, that it should ideally be shaped toward the public good with all assumptions on the table for inspection, that such reconsideration has not yet happened, and that a party that wants to be in tune with younger voters and with future trends would do well to start looking at the issue with fresh eyes. Such is the strength of the Hollywood lobby that those ideas would have been unthinkable for a major party researcher to produce even a few years ago. Apparently they are still pretty edgy, because the position paper was immediately disavowed by the RSC and the researcher, Derek Khanna, was fired shortly thereafter. But he was right, and I hope Oliver Sacks is reading a large-print version of his paper right now.


[1] We originally referred to Derek Khanna’s paper for the Republican Study Committee as a “draft”, but since then have learned that it was not merely a draft — it was a finalized position paper, later retracted. Techdirt has more about the incident, and Khanna’s paper itself is here: Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It.