Search results for: censorship

rights owner
Someone with a government-granted monopoly on duplication of a particular work.
Making copies from a source you already have, without waiting for a third party’s permission. Also: forcibly boarding a ship on the high seas, threatening or taking hostage its crew, and stealing its cargo.
fair use
What all uses once were. Today, refers only to uses that do not interfere with monopoly-based business models.
See: music-sharing
Sharing music, as humans have done throughout history. Sometimes called file-sharing, when the music is shared via a computer network.
Claiming credit for someone else’s work. This is unrelated to copying and making derivative works.
intellectual property
A catch-all category that lumps together trademarks (a legal device for preventing identity confusion) with copyrights (monopoly on the distribution of culture) and patents (monopoly on the use of ideas). Since trademark law actually has much more to do with anti-fraud laws, it might be better to refer to that category as intellectual integrity law, to copyrights and patents as intellectual monopoly law, and avoid the term intellectual property altogether.
theft or stealing
The act of taking something in such a way that the original possessor loses it. Contrast with copying, in which a new thing is created that is similar to, or the same as, a thing that the original possessor continues to have afterwards.
Preventing people from sharing information. See also: copyright restriction
Making false claims of copyright ownership and/or false allegations of copyright infringement, whether malicious or accidental. Copyfraud often results from attempts to use automated systems to detect copyrighted material online. Such automated systems frequently misidentify content, or misunderstand the distribution rights associated with content; furthermore, some organizations will even manually file incorrect or occasionally deliberately fraudulent infringement claims of infringement. (Google’s copyright takedown request report, this EFF article, and this TorrentFreak article have more details about these phenomena). All of these causes can lead to copyfraud: a video or song or other material gets pulled offline, or someone receives a legal notice of infringement, and the burden is now on the artist or uploader to to prove that there was no infringement.
public domain
A special term used to describe the absence of statutory restrictions that chain copies of a given work to one party, who has (with certain limitations) control over the distribution and re-use of those copies. The public domain is sometimes talked about as though it were some kind of holding pen for works that have reached a certain age; we prefer to think of it as the normal home of all works except those which have been sentenced to a more restricted life under monopoly control. Before such monopoly restrictions became default, no term was needed to describe their absence.
“fall into” the public domain or “lapse into” the public domain
To be elevated to the public domain. This refers to the moment when default statutory monopoly restrictions expire for a given work.
free license

A “free license” is a copyright license that guarantees everyone permanent rights to use a work, to study and learn from it, to share it with anyone else, to display or perform it, and to distribute derivative works related to it, all without requiring permission first. (Note that these freedoms do not mean allowing people to take credit for work that’s not theirs: that’s just misattribution or fraud, and the best protection against it is to have legitimate, correctly labeled copies circulating widely.)

Two of the most widely used free licenses are the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) and Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) licenses. Note that licenses that restrict commercial use, or that require permission for derivative works, are not free licenses.

The software field also has an unusually rich and varied set of free licenses, due to the long history of legal activism to promote sharing and freedom there; see the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative web sites for more about those licenses.

For a more formal explanation of these freedoms, and why they are the test that we and others use, see Freedom Defined. That site also has a more complete list of freedom-respecting licenses.

Suggestions for further glossary terms welcome! Please contact us, or leave suggestions as comments. We’ll review and incorporate the best ones.

French Pirate Party freedom poster

Thanks to Jeff Ubois for bringing this one to our attention…

Internet users in France who illegally download too many times will risk having their Internet connection taken away by court order. No, I’m not making this up: read about it in The Guardian, Tech Crunch, The New York Times, and the French Pirate Party‘s page (with English) about it.

The French Pirate Party (PPF), at the above link and elsewhere, is doing a good job of articulating what’s wrong with this — aside from the fact that the content providers don’t need their own taxpayer-funded private police force anyway, that is. As the PPF points out, the new measure will result in:

  • “filtering of internet content” (they have to watch you to catch you)

  • the “creation of an independent authority, parallel to justice, able to terminate internet access of users, and to punish any ISP that wouldn’t comply” …and if that sounds like hyperbole to you, remember how utterly compliant state police forces generally are when the Business Software Alliance or local equivalent requests a raid — the PPF is absolutely right to be worried.

  • “creation of a national directory of such ‘terminated’ users.” I haven’t read the new law, but I assume the PPF has and is reporting accurately. So apparently, once you’ve been caught — gasp! — downloading some bits you didn’t pay for, it’s clearly important to make sure you never commit this heinous crime again.

(There’s more translation at Bruce Sterling’s blog.)

I haven’t read the details of the new law, and at least one commenter thinks there’s less to worry about here than it might at first appear. But these sorts of state-industry alliances haven’t done too well for citizens in the past. It is highly unlikely that nuances of “fair use” (or whatever the local equivalent is — French law is different in this regard) will be respected. Many of the commenters pointed out how this law could easily be used for political censorship. One gave the example of unauthorized videos of police actions: if the copyright holder for the footage is a news organization with an interest in maintaining good relations with the government, then citizens who redistribute the images might now be risking their Internet connection

The best interpretation here is that the government of France has completely bought into industry propaganda about how artists need copyright to survive. That’s already pretty disappointing, especially in a country where the government itself funds so much artistic activity, thus belying the very assumptions on which this new law is based.

(Translations: 中文)

Portait of Jacob Tummon

Today the Vancouver Sun published an editorial by Jacob Tummon entitled “The Case for the Death of Copyright”. Tummon is already known to readers here for his in-depth piece on copyright at While this editorial is necessarily shorter and less detailed than that earlier piece, it still makes a strong case. Tummon is a law school graduate, and he makes the excellent point that unenforceable laws inevitably lead to disrespect for the law itself: “Canada has experience with laws that engender widespread violation: Consider prohibition in the 1920s. A law violated so brazenly is more than meaningless — it undermines the effectiveness of the legal system generally.” Bravo to the Vancouver Sun for giving space to these ideas.

Here’s the full editorial, reprinted with Jacob Tummon’s permission…

The Case for the Death of Copyright

It has been said that intellectual property law has an unfortunate tendency to “disable critical thought.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than the reasons proffered for copyright in the Internet age, including the refrain that “copying is tantamount to stealing.” That flatly is not the case.

The morality, economics, and practicality of laws dealing with physical property do not hold for the intangible works covered by copyright. With finite physical property, scarcity is inescapable; with digital representations, scarcity does not apply. It is therefore not surprising that reasoning premised on this false analogy yields a law not in the best interests of content creators (“content creator” means artists, musicians, writers and so forth.)

The ostensible justification for copyright is that it provides attribution to the original creator and serves as an economic incentive for creators who can license the use of their work to make money, provided someone is willing to pay.

The latter point deserves careful scrutiny as the vast majority of creators do not earn meaningful incomes through copyright. Moreover, there are viable models for creators to earn income from their work which do not depend on copyright. Sponsorships, ticket sales, T-shirt sales and commissioned works are obvious longstanding examples.

Canadian musician Jane Siberry offers her music on her website using a “pay what you can” system, but a guideline shows the average price customers have paid per track. The result is an average price higher than what one would pay through iTunes. There are also similarly clever business models for novelists.

Embedding advertising or product placement within a TV show or movie is another viable means to pay for content. Budweiser produces its own TV-type shows on its website Bud.TV. Budweiser’s motive is worth noting for its prescient thinking: “If we don’t start playing in this digital game now we’re going to be playing catch-up for a long time. And this is an industry that can’t afford catch-up,” explained Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch’s vice-president of global media and sports marketing.

Nor is proper attribution dependent on copyright. Tort law, through causes of actions like defamation and passing-off, could be wielded to prevent someone other than the original creator from claiming authorship, and also the original creator being credited with an altered version of the work. Incidentally, plagiarism in an academic setting is currently enforced independently of copyright.

Trademarks and patents are other areas of intellectual property that do not depend on copyright and would continue to exist in the absence of copyright.

That copyright isn’t needed for attribution or economic incentive is not the whole story. There is a body of work, in all areas covered by copyright, which requires the elimination of copyright to flourish. DJ’s making mixed tapes is a simple example.

Consider, with the means available through modern software, the splicing of video to say nothing of novels; a freeing from the constraints of copyright would invariably lead to an explosion of works being altered, transformed, improved, and ultimately morphed into new works.

The lack of such creative works is a not insignificant cost of copyright. This repressing effect can be damaging to the promotion of political and social expression and greater productivity.

Copyright was originally created as a means for government to exercise censorship after the advent of the movable type printing press. Given this origin it is not surprising that copyright is not intellectually coherent.

Stephen Breyer, now a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote as an academic in the 1970s on the weak case for copyright, asking why the work covered by copyright should be treated differently than other actions that produce value far beyond what they get remuneration for, i.e. the person who invents the supermarket, the person who clears a swamp, a schoolteacher.

The truth is that copyright has traditionally, and to this day, served primarily the publisher’s interest and not that of the creator or the public — it is not derived from natural justice.

Irrespective of moral and economic dimensions, the deathblow to copyright will likely come from the Internet itself. Due to the nature of the Internet, and anonymizing technologies in particular, the practicality of attempting to enforce a pre-internet copyright regime through the Internet is a road that we as a society should not go down.

Canada has experience with laws that engender widespread violation: Consider prohibition in the 1920s. A law violated so brazenly is more than meaningless — it undermines the effectiveness of the legal system generally.

Over time, the Internet will increasingly expose constraints on text, pictures, and videos for what they are — arbitrary and outmoded. In the meantime, it makes sense for Canada not to pass copyright laws that are more restrictive and invasive.

Jacob Tummon is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s faculty of law.

As promised, here’s the Op-Ed piece (lightly edited) that I sent in to the New York Times as a response to Mark Helprin’s article on extending copyright.

Great Ideas Live Forever — But Only If We Let Them.

The title of Mark Helprin’s May 20th Op-Ed piece (“A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?”) puts an important question front and center. And the answer is a resounding “No.”

It is precisely because great ideas and great works of art live forever that restrictions on accessing them should be temporary and limited, much more limited than they are today. This is not only because access to culture and knowledge is a public benefit in itself, but also because those who create new works build on the works of their predecessors and peers. All creation is derivative — as Mr. Helprin, himself a writer, ought to know.

Treating works of the mind as physical property fails at a basic logical level: if I steal your bicycle, now you have no bicycle; if I copy your song, now we both have it. When Helprin argues that the government should not be able to “commandeer” your works (by which he means, apparently, allow them to pass into the public domain), he blurs this crucial distinction. The government is not commandeering anything. Even after leaving copyright, your work is still your own. After all, no one is arguing against rights of attribution being preserved: the world will still know who made that book, or song, or painting. What’s really happening is that the government is finally relinquishing command of the work, by allowing it to flow freely in the great creative stream where the bulk of humanity’s inheritance resides.

The question we should be asking is: for how long should the government give any private party — sometimes the author, more often a publisher — the ability to prevent others from making copies and derivative works? That is all copyright does, in the end. It is not an ownership right, it is a temporary monopoly. In possessing a copyright, I possess nothing tangible that I didn’t have before, I simply have the privilege to cause others to possess less, and can rent or sell this privilege for a fee.

But if copyright is just the option to prevent other people from exchanging information freely, we should surely demand the strongest possible proof that it benefits society, before granting such severe powers even temporarily. Yet Helprin proposes extending copyright terms to be essentially infinite. Why?

Helprin has fallen prey to three myths. The first is the fallacy of a natural right of ownership (that is, control) for works of the mind. The reason ownership makes sense for bicycles is that, without ownership, it would be too difficult to decide how a particular bicycle would be used. Imagine a world where bicycles couldn’t be owned: every time I wanted to ride mine, I might have to put it up to a vote by the whole world. Endless discussions would ensue, perhaps a run-off election.

The idea is ludicrous, of course. We have ownership so we can efficiently make decisions about exclusive allocation of resources. But the key word is “exclusive”: when the resources are infinitely renewable, as with works of the mind, I can ride my bicycle and so can you, and neither of us need interfere with the other. The idea that owning creative works is somehow a natural right thus founders on the rocks of physical reality. When Helprin equates copyrights with houses, he chooses a bad metaphor, and comes to bad conclusions.

The second myth is that of the lone genius, the solitary creator whose works spring de novo from some unique spark, owing nothing to anyone else. That’s simply not how creativity works. It is sobering to realize just how many masterpieces we would be without now, had copyright laws always been as strict as they are today. Helprin cites a Mozart aria as an example of art (and let us note, in passing, that Mozart was paid through grants, commissions, and salaries, not through copyright royalties). If Helprin is fond of opera, has he considered that we would likely be without Verdi’s “Macbeth”, had Shakespeare’s plays not been part of the public domain, accessible to all as a basis for derivative works? I pick this example at random; there are many others. Derivation is not some statistical outlier, it is the norm, and the freedom to practice it has been central to creativity for millennia. Transcription, rearrangement, quotation, and translation of other works have always been the marrow of art, as any musician, painter, or writer can testify. Only recently have we begun insisting that certain of these creative imitations be kept private, or else be subject to the grueling process of “rights negotiation”, which causes so many works of art to be suppressed or heavily modified.

The third myth, which Helprin relies on unquestioningly, is that today’s severe copyright regime is justified because it provides an economic basis for creativity. A look at the lives of most artists suffices to show how wrong this is. Today, as in the past, most creators fund their activities through day jobs, grants, commissions, patronage, sale of first-print rights, and performances — but only rarely through copyright royalties. It is true that a small minority of creators do earn a living from copyright, and if we think that business model worth preserving, we should be considering how long copyright terms really need to be to support it. It’s hard to imagine, though, that if we evaluated copyright strictly as an economic incentive, we would be able to justify multiple decades of monopoly control, as we currently have, let alone extending and tightening that control to the degree Helprin proposes. A few years of copyright? A decade, perhaps? These are the lengths of time within which most copyrighted works make most of their royalties. Restrictions beyond that should be viewed at best as indulgences, certainly not as rights.

Helprin writes that “an agricultural-age law makes no sense in our creative era”. But copyright is not an agricultural-age law. It was designed in the early eighteenth century around the limitations of the printing press. Publishers, not authors, proposed it as a compromise measure to replace an expiring censorship law. Their argument was that exclusive print rights would be needed to ensure dependable reproduction, in an age when the technology and economics of print runs were the main hurdles in making works accessible to the public. From the start copyright was not really about subsidizing creation, it was about subsidizing distribution, just as it is today.

Except that today we have a far better distribution mechanism than the eighteenth century ever dreamed of. We’ve just finished building a worldwide copying and editing machine — the Internet — and this is no time to shrink from using it. Mark Helprin’s proposed course would hurt artists and the public alike. Instead, we should be trying to reduce copyright to the minimum needed (if any) to bring new works into existence, and treating works of the mind as seeds, to be returned as soon as possible to the fertile earth of the public domain.

Subject: Re: MTT Files Program 4: Igor Stravinsky’s Copyright Blues

Regarding “The MTT Files” Program #4 (“Igor Stravinsky’s Copyright Blues”), which aired on San Francisco’s KALW radio tonight:

Michael Tilson Thomas’s intertwined history of music publishing and Stravinsky’s composing life was fascinating and enjoyable — but may I register a complaint? The program came very close to being a probing look at copyright and control, only to shy away and simply reiterate Stravinsky’s grievances without examining them too deeply.

For example:

Stravinsky objected strenuously to music from his ballet “The Firebird” being rearranged as a popular song, “Summer Moon”. In fact, he objected so much that he sued his American publisher for allowing it to happen, on the basis that the rearrangement was devoid of musical merit.

In his sympathic recounting of Stravinsky’s claim that the music had been damaged, Michael Tilson Thomas falls into the trap of treating music as though it were a physical object. The problem with this is easy to explain: if you damage my bicycle, now I cannot ride it, but if you “damage” my song, the world now has both my original version and your new version. Nothing has been lost, something has only been gained. Ultimately, a song cannot be destroyed or damaged. It can be copied, but the original always remains, no matter what is done with a particular copy.

An artist’s attempt to suppress derivative works, as Stravinsky did, is simply censorship by another name. After all, no one was asking Stravinsky to endorse “Summer Moon” artistically. His good name and musical reputation were not on the line: he was always free to disparage “Summer Moon” and dissociate himself from it, if he wanted to.

But by attempting to suppress the song, Stravinsky went from mere disdain to outright hypocrisy. After all, in his own compositions, he had long made liberal use of others’ work — not only of folk tunes, but of composed and attributed music, such as in the Pulcinella Suite. Would Stravinsky say that Giovanni Pergolesi (or Pergolesi’s heirs) should have the right to sue Stravinsky for rearrangements that Pergolesi would probably have found strange? Of course not. And just as Stravinsky was free to build on the work of his predecessors and peers, he should have extended the same rights to others.

My point is not that we should blame Stravinsky — he was behaving the way the copyright system encouraged him to behave, and no differently from many other composers. But an examination of music and copyright, even if it springs from a story about a particular Stravinsky rehearsal, should do more than perpetuate the all-too-common perception that the way copyright enables artists to “control” their work is an uncontroversial and natural right. The reality is far more complex than that. It’s no coincidence that modern copyright law descends directly from a sixteenth-century English censorship law, a history that Michael Tilson Thomas unfortunately didn’t have time to cover.

-Karl Fogel

Frequently Asked Questions: Was copyright invented by writers and artists, to protect themselves? No. Actually, it was invented by publishers, to preserve an information ownership monopoly based on a government censorship policy. The first copyright law was a 1556 censorship statute in England. It granted the Company of Stationers, a London guild, exclusive rights to…

Read More — FAQ

  by Karl Fogel Translations: 中文, Italiano, česky, Polski, latviešu valoda. (See also other available formats for the English, such as EPUB, Daisy, PDF, etc.) There is one group of people not shocked by the record industry’s policy of suing randomly chosen file sharers: historians of copyright. They already know what everyone else is slowly…

Read More The Surprising History of Copyright and The Promise of a Post-Copyright World