Sharing isn’t Stealing

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton asks “Can your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?” He describes photographing images from a number of home design books to share with a contractor. Concerned that his behavior, Bilton seeks answers from several copyright experts and gets a mixed set of responses. (Most seemed to feel it bordered on infringement.)

For example, Charles Nesson, the Weld professor of law at Harvard said, “If people are taking a picture of a picture to take with them [their cell phones], then is it is exactly like the MP3 issue.”

Stan Liebowitz, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas, also felt that cell phone photography was closer to piracy than not – “In the 1970s, everyone didn’t have a photocopier sitting in their home. Now everyone has a cellphone in their pocket that can easily copy anything.”

I’m certainly not a legal scholar but would it be a problem if I took the books out of the library and showed the pictures to my contractor? Or if I photocopied images? (The article goes into length on the role of photocopiers in copyright law during the 1970s.) What if I invited my contractor to join me at the bookstore to look at the images together without paying for the book? Would that be piracy?

Somehow, to me, this doesn’t make much sense. Is it a problem to take a book out of the library to show someone a photograph on a page? If it isn’t, then how is it a problem to take a photograph of that same photograph and show it to someone for the same purpose? I agree that the wholesale duplication and distribution of copyrighter materials isn’t OK but what Bilton describes sounds like it’s a long way from piracy.

Crazy Content Concerns?

I was lucky to see Len Edgerly talk about eBooks at PodCamp 5 in Boston. His talk was mostly on the processes around publishing and promoting eBooks. What interests me about them is their role in copyright and the licensing of our cultural commons. This was something I was able to chat with both Len and Paul Gillen about later during the event.

First this is something that’s bugged me for a while and every time I think of it I get irritated all over again. Here’s my deal on all this.

The written word is the most common – and perhaps the most effective – form of information sharing that exists. Printed material can be stored in many conditions, produced fairly cheaply and shared easily. But this isn’t a paean to the the physical form of the book. It’s about what the book represents – the cheap and easy transferral of ideas.

A book can sit on a shelf for hundreds of years and its content is still as available and accessible as the day it was printed. Will the same be true of eBooks? Will those who control proprietary distribution formats be around in 200 years? Will they or those who follow continue to support the devices needed to access the content? What happens if my library is locked into a device that’s no longer sold or supported?

These are important issues when thinking about our culture.

It’s not just the physical issues though that bother me – it’s the idea that one has to enter into a licensing agreement to access some of the central assets of our shared heritage. For THOUSANDS OF YEARS people shared content without restriction. People “borrowed” content from each other without attribution. People created and shared and consumed content more or less as they wished.

Now content is locked down – and has been for around three hundred years. In terms of our history of writing (to say NOTHING of creating content in general) this is less than 10 percent of our literate history. It seems crazy that thousands of years of human behavior can have been so totally turned on its head in so short a period – but not surprising I suppose.

When I was talking with Len he brought up that copyright was designed to encourage creativity and to reward content creators. I have no problem with that but it’s a little more complicated for me. I mean it isn’t as though people DIDN’T create content before copyright laws went into effect. Really, a whole ton of stuff was written before that – the Bible, Don Quixote, the Decameron, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Tale of Genji are just a few that popped into my head.

I do agree that copyright protects creators – especially in an ear of perfect and frictionless identical copies of virtually any type of content. But that protection needs to be considered in the context of our culture. Today, even incidental inclusion of protected content is frown upon – let alone using elements of that content to create something new. Rights need to be reconsidered to encourage content creation – not punish and restrict it for decades and decades and decades.

So what does this have to do with eBooks? I think that what’s happening over time is that we’re becoming desensitized to the real nature of our relationship with content. One used to be able to share a book with a friend – now not so much. One used to be confident that the book on the shelf would be there and ready to read today, tomorrow or decades down the line – now that isn’t certain.

I realize this isn’t especially well thought out and that it might be a little all over the place but to voluntarily ceed our right to access content to technology companies seems crazy to me. What do you think?

That’s just (copy)wrong

On July 7 the FT had a good opinion piece on the role of copyright as it relates to online freedom. The point was that we’re kowtowing to a set of principles which – while claiming to support the creation of culture and content – is doing exactly the opposite.

If you search for Elvis Presley in Wikipedia, you will find a lot of text and a few pictures that have been cleared for distribution. But you will find no music and no film clips, due to copyright restrictions. What we think of as our common cultural heritage is not “ours” at all.

Christian Engström, Pirate Party member of the European parliament

I was thinking of this issue especially as I’m reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a literary mashup that augments Jane Austen’s classic with a new zombie and ninja subplot. It does so much right – taking a familiar story, mixing it, twisting it and making it something new.

Now what would happen if someone were to try to do the same with a current contemporary formulaic novel? There are plenty of commodity authors out there but good luck to you if you were to try to play with that content . . .

Copyright isn’t about protecting and supporting creativity – copyright is about protecting and supporting commercial interests – and more often than not that interest is at least one step removed from the content creator.

Maybe when the tools for content production and distribution were out of the reach of most copyright as it’s currently understood made sense – but now, do we need to have commercial interests dictating the rules of the game when it comes to creativity?

As the opinion piece points out, copyright was intended to foster cultural production – not avarice. But that’s what it’s become. I can’t agree with the author that wholesale distribution of copyrighted works ought to be encouraged; but derivative works that add to rather than diminish our shared culture ought to be applauded.