Going on the Offensive: Abolition or Reform?

going on the offensive

How bad is the current copyright system? Should we push for abolition, or just radical reform?

Both. There are many people for whom abolition is too large a step, at least right now, but who see how broken things are and are willing to consider even drastic reforms. A reader recently pointed to a particularly good article entitled Some thoughts on a “Copyright Offensive”. As he wrote, “We need a set of proposals that we can push. They need to be such that they can make the situation better. They need to be such that we can reach a compromise on them that will still make things better.”

In that spirit, here’s a proposal, loosely adapted from the one in that article:

  1. Restrictions do not come free; they require eventual registration. If a work is to be under restrictive copyright, then within two years after publication, it must be marked and registered with the copyright office. (Registration can be done electronically now, so this is no longer the burden it was when the United States ceased to require registration as part of the conditions for joining the Berne Convention.)

  2. Once a work is registered, there is a yearly tax to maintain the copyright That is, charge a fee for the maintenance of monopoly privileges, just as in other industries.

  3. The copyright tax is 1% of the value of the covered work, as declared by the copyright holder. The holder is motivated to declare an honest value by having to agree to liberate the work (make it public domain or sharealike) on payment by anyone of the full declared value. The holder may adjust the declared value up or down upon reregistration each year; the fee is recalculated accordingly. See Balanced Buyout for details.

  4. Copyright lasts for 10 years, then the work converts to sharealike or the public domain, at the holder’s discretion. If the holder does not declare a preference, the default is sharealike.

  5. Sharealike terms do not expire.

  6. Separate laws to protect attribution, independently of copyright. Attribution laws would apply equally to copyrighted, sharealike, and public domain works, since authorship is independent of copyright status.

Comments welcome.



16 Comments on "Going on the Offensive: Abolition or Reform?"

  1. sa terms should expire after 20 years, as all works should reenter the public domain. perpetual sa terms could create the same locking / prohibition that copyright does, making works incompatible.

    i can only think of two reasons why it would be good for sa terms to not expire, in a world that has a reasonable copyright regime:

    1, to always force people to create open works if they want to use open content. but incompatible terms keep use restricted.

    2. to require people include source (applies primarily to free software) while i hope to see the 4 freedoms granted by the gpl in use as much in 100 years as it is today, i would hate to see the gpl codebase become untouchable in the future because for some unforeseen reason, its terms are incompatible with a better license that provides the 4 freedoms.

    you could workaround these problems by saying after 10 years, or 20 years, every sa license is compatible with any other. but that would mean gpl is suddenly compatible with by-sa, which doesn’t provide source. also you’d have to legally define umbrella “sa.” 20 years is a good long period of protection, it’s all we need.

  2. Pondering that one… you raise some good points. (I’m also curious what other commenters have to say about it.)

  3. let them not expire and be compatible.

    you would not lose anything of practical value re the gpl right? you would lose the source protections if the sa expired anyway. However, surely language could be found to keep the source requirements where needed?

    all the best,


  4. so that there are no works of undetermined status, we need immediate marking requirements for anything that is not sa. if you don’t register for two years, you still owe the tax man.

    all the best,


  5. i can only think of two reasons why it would be good for sa terms to not expire, in a world that has a reasonable copyright regime:

    Yeah, the problem is the world doesn’t have reasonable copyright regime. If it did, we wouldn’t need any of these licenses.

  6. Don’t take this the wrong way, but this “SA provisions don’t expire” thing just stinks of the same ego-trip copyright apologists/maximalists are into. What exactly do you gain by having Share-alike provisions not expire? After all, so-called “Free” culture licenses are ultimately nothing more than a “workaround” for an otherwise odious IP regime. They have absolutely no value beyond that.

    I’d personally say that your proposal is way too friendly to copyright, and the control-freak mentality which copyright sometimes brings out in people. Why have ANY kind of “license” as the default, if as we all know, licenses — even “free culture” ones — are dependent upon monopoly privileges, in order to be enforced?

    What we need to be aiming for, is a system where monopoly privieges (if they are permitted to exist at all), actually impose some level of hassle and hoop-jumping on those wishing to acquire them. Patents require effort from the would-be monopolist, as do trademarks. So why not copyright?

    As an added bonus, requiring some hoop-jumping, red tape, (and yes, fees) would act as a “disincentive”, and (hopefully) reign in such privileges, before they become onerous on the rest of society at large.

    Further, the amount shouldn’t be easy for people to raise. Say 5000 dollars, even for the privilege of using a “Free culture” license?

    Free culture licenses ARE still licenses, and they *do* still impose conditions — which is exactly the underlying situation we’re trying to get away from.

    Whatever form the proposal takes, it needs to have PD (public domain) as the default, with monopoly privilege (copyright) FIRMLY recognized as such.

    In a reasonable IP regime, so-called “free culture” licenses would be completely superfluous.

    1. In a reasonable IP regime, so-called “free culture” licenses would be completely superfluous.

      Absolutely, yes.

    2. This argument doesn’t quite hold up, to me. The situations are not symmetrical:

      If there were no copyright at all, then there would never be a need for sharealike conditions, because all derivative works would be allowed in the first place. (There are some funny exceptions around the source code to compiled computer programs, but that’s a minor issue that we can sweep under the rug for now, I guess.)

      But when there’s going to be copyright, even for a limited time, the question is simply what kind of defaults we’re better off with. It’s not like both sides of this see-saw have to go equally high. For someone to say “You’re free to use my work, but you’re not free to use it as part of a work that restricts others freedoms” is not quite the same thing as saying “You’re not free to use my work”. Those are the sharealike vs copyright maximalist positions.

      All that said, I’m not positive I disagree with your point, I’m just not sure I follow the reasoning behind it…

      By the way, regarding requiring people to jump through some hoops before they get a monopoly privilege, have you looked at this article?

      There’s also Nina Paley’s interesting alternative: your copyright fee for the first year is $1. Second year $2. Third year $4. Fourth year $8. Fifth year $16. Sixth year $32… You can see where this is going. When the fee gets too high, you just stop paying it, at which point the work goes into the public domain. My only problem with it is that it still leaves somewhere between one and two decades of affordable monopoly, depending on the work in question. But it’s the right idea: if there’s going to be a monopoly, make it get more expensive as the work becomes less monetarily valuable. Eventually, those lines will cross, and the work will be freed.

  7. “ShareAlike” and even “Attribution” terms should be limited in time. There are already many cases of conflicts arising from various copyleft licenses interfering with each other. (I’ve been bitten by this myself).

    Even if  you enforce this through legislation rather than licenses, awkward situations are bound to occur.

    And you’re starving one “commons” to feed another. If conventional copyright is worth keeping, then it’s worth keeping things compatible (I know you probably disagree with the premise there, but then that would make this a dishonest compromise — you’d be trying to undermine it).

    We’ve benefitted from the professional industry that copyright-based production enables, even if we can see many ways in which it has also hurt us. The main issue is to get it to stop interfering so violently with free production — you don’t need perpetual SA to do that.

    “Attribution” ultimately has the “Old BSD” problem — after awhile, you pile up such a collage of contributions that it is no longer practical to identify all of them. Copyright shouldn’t force you not to create by the sheer weight of the licensing requirements! ShareAlike can impose similar transaction costs.

    So let’s keep the public domain pretty much as it is — totally free.

    Of course, the time limit on SA and By don’t need to be as short as the limits on copyright monopoly — I wouldn’t even mind life+50 for that (though I’d favor a shorter term, like 50 yrs or 20 yrs).

    1. I think all the terms of CC licenses are attached to those of Copyright. Once the underlying © expires, the CC terms expire with it, and all reverts to the Public Domain.

      I only favor CopyLeft because of our default copyright regime. If the default were reasonable copyright or no copyright, there would be no need for copyleft.

    2. I also agree about attribution; after a few iterations, the burden of crediting becomes absurd. I have no solutions right now, but hope others are considering the problem. I think the most “spiritually advanced” release would require no attribution; I’m not there yet though. 😉

  8. Generally a reasonable proposal. I’m certainly in favour of the idea that copyright exists only if it is registered. I’m not so sure of the 1% tax: as a published author, I wouldn’t have known at the time of publication whether my book would sell 500 copies or 100,000; I would probably estimate low to save tax, and it’s likely that someone in the trade would spot that sales were looking good and the rights were undervalued long before I as an author spotted it. But I guess minor tweaking to the rules could fix that problem: always allow the existing copyright holder the option to top any offer. Alternative idea: perhaps the tax should be zero for the first two years, at which time it should be possible to make a more reasonable estimate of the value.


    It’s not clear how this would be administered internationally.

  9. I don’t understand what we’re trying to protect. Just abolish copyright; it’s way simpler and more defensible. If we have even a limited copyright as is suggested here, piracy will *still* be a problem in many industries (ex. gaming), so the industries which try to rely on copyright will *still* have to lobby the governments to allow for all lossless communication (ex. the internet) to be policed for infringing content.

    Instead let’s just abolish copyright; do away with all the legalese and nonsense that’s holding us all back (including very many industries which could *thrive* in a world without copyright). Suddenly international trade will make sense, communication in democratic countries will be unfettered, and we’ll never have to ask permission to create new works (artistic, educational, or otherwise).

  10. I am a professional writer with some success in the field. I saw this site attached to a “copying is not theft” video and came basically expecting to see some very immature scribblings about how people should be allowed to copy everything without restriction. 

    Instead i found a very well written article and site. I was very impressed with this article in particular. I think this would be a good idea for copyright reform. 

    #4 would be problematic in that no one should be asked to put a price on their own work. It should be assessed independently. 

    1. Thanks so much for your praise about the site; we’re very glad you like it.

      The current system does, of course, require people to put a price on their own work, since copyright gives them a fairly absolute right of control.  They may choose “0” or “I don’t know”, but no one can escape the position of being asked to price their work, by the nature of the system.

      One interesting idea Nina Paley had was not market-based, but was simply: your copyright registration fee is $1 the first year, $2 the second year, $4 the third year, $8 the fourth year, $16 the fifth year, $32 dollars the sixth year… etc, etc.  You can see where that goes.  By ten or eleven years into the monopoly, you’re into the thousands of dollars, and after 20 years only the most commercially successful works (such as a Disney film) could support the millions required to maintain the monopoly.  The best part is that the point-in-time commercial value is following an opposite curve, of course: a work is usually most valuable when it is first released, and becomes worth less money over time.  (Though let’s make sure not to confuse monetary value with worth.  Tolstoy’s original works have no monetary value, in copyright terms, but few would argue they have no worth.)

      So the price of the monopoly (to the holder) goes up as its utility goes down.  When the two curves cross, the public benefits through one more work entering the public domain.