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.]

(Translations: 中文)

Portait of Janet Underhill

Janet Underhill has been teaching music for 30 years at a private school in Chicago. She has taught piano, voice, guitar, recorder and general music to students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school. In this article, she tells how copyright prevents her from providing her students the best possible materials.

I teach general music. My goal is to engage all of my students in music making, to develop their musical skills, and then to send them on to their choice of band, chorus, private lessons, ensembles. Hopefully, my students will continue to connect with music, singing and playing, as part of their lives.

I need materials that are formatted for the elementary student that will foster the development of musical skills as well as provide the materials for enjoyable singing experiences. Such music should contain the changes that the beginning guitar student can handle. True, there are plenty of songs written expressly for the music classroom. They come with permission to copy for classroom use; they’re cute, clever, integrated with the broader curriculum, written in the service of math, social science, English — and have no connection whatsoever to the wider world of parents, grandparents, the community and the culture. The songs are disconnected, expressively flat, remarkably forgettable. They cannot be shared with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They don’t exist outside of the walls of the school. The children sense this, and do not take them very seriously.

What my students need is a good mix of children’s song literature, folk music, appropriate pop literature, Broadway songs, and songs from the American song book. Songs need to make connections across the curriculum, across the generations and across cultures. Freedom to choose these kinds of songs is crucial to my work as a teacher. Copyright laws restrict how I can use music from, say, the Beatles. The problem with simply purchasing the music is that it often comes in formats that don’t work with my young students. I need lead sheets with simple, hopefully mostly primary chords, written in a fairly big type, and with the words beneath. I want my students to connect with the notes as well as the words. Their singing experiences should be music reading experiences as well. I can’t find music like this. Any collection may contain one or two songs that are appropriate, but their format always presents problems for the young singer and student. They are often printed in keys that don’t match the vocal ranges of my singers. They are too difficult to read because they often come in voice plus piano accompaniment formats. The easy guitar song books often include changes that are far too complicated for my young guitar players. So, in an attempt to address these issues within the current copyright world, I went about writing to publishers with suggestions for song books for the elementary music classroom, well-tested songs from all these various musical traditions. The market for such materials is as huge as the elementary school systems. But market is not my consideration. Music education of the young is my concern. I bought and examined several publications from Hal Leonard, the giant in this field. There are many terrific books in their library that might serve the classroom purpose quite well. They all have problems that would need to be addressed in order to make them truly useable. I wrote to Hal Leonard, offering suggestions along the above guidelines. I got back a terse, impersonal response, which I will paraphrase here: No input allowed. We do not consider, review or accept outside solicitations. It’s a lock without a key. I have greatly reduced access to good music because of copyrights, all held by a few megacorporations. And I am shut out of the process that might result in materials that would serve genuine educational goals, that might actually connect the students to the very world of music these corporations wish to promote. It makes me wonder whom copyright is really meant to serve.