The future of copyright

This weekend, I went to the Danish Social Forum, which is a Danish version of the World Social Forum – a gathering of various grassroots organizations seeking to bring focus to the many alternative ways that the world can develop, all under the heading “another world is possible.”

Mainly, I went to see the the panel debate on the future of copyright, since Lawrence Lessig was to attend and give a presentation on copyright. Lessig is the founder of the Creative Commons movement which is an attempt to make a voluntary reform of the copyright system, which has been distorted and corrupted by what he calls a “an economy of influence” within the US political system, where politicians spend 70 to 80% of their time raising campaign money from various lobbyists and interest organizations.

Lessig is a brilliant and lucid speaker, and it is always a joy to hear him give a presentation. He was joined in the panel debate by Rasmus Fleischer of the Swedish Piratbyrån (Bureau of Piracy) – one of the leading proponents of copyright piracy and the ideologists behind the Pirate Bay filesharing site. As Fleischer put it, “it’s not that we’re anti-copyright, it’s just that we don’t believe in it. I don’t mind copyright as long as it doesn’t get in the way of any creativity I like.”

The third panel participant was Johan Söderberg, a Swedish film editor, who has edited several documentaries as well as the famed “Read my lips” duet between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, which is a integral part of Lessig’s Creative Commons presentations on remix culture.

The discussion as such wasn’t very fluid, but there were some interesting points along the way – mostly in the individual presentations. Söderberg noted that he made a clear distinction between films that he wants to make money making, and films that he’s just making to put on the Internet. With the first category, he makes sure to pay for all the clips he uses, to support the photographers producing all the film which made his film possible. With the second category, he doesn’t pay for anything, he simply uploads it to the Internet for all to see, and he rarely gets in trouble for it.

Söderberg noted that many people seem to be unable to connect the notions of “sharing the work you like” with “supporting the artists you like”, and while he liked the idea of the Creative Commons, he thought it difficult to accomplish, since how would you guarantee any sort of income for the artists?

This in fact, proved to be the crux of the problem: Generally, artists are quite supportive of free sharing and spreading of good ideas, as allowed by the Creative Commons, but how are they going to make any money from it?

Lessig noted that sure, piracy of copyrighted materials was a sort of civil disobedience – a way to show that you don’t approve the grotesquely long copyright terms instituted, last through the Sonny Bono copyright term extension act, but it is unhelpful disobedience: Traditionally, civil disobedience involved undergoing various hardships to show your lack of respect for the law: Going to jail for resisting the draft or refusing to pay your taxes. With piracy, you’re basically just getting stuff for free. It produces a misleading message.

Both Lessig and Fleischer argued that a good solution would be to shorten the copyright term to around 3 to 5 years, allowing freer use of the material much sooner. Fleischer also argued that it would be necessary to change the focus from solely on the end product to view creativity as a continuing conversation, where the individual performance or physical manifestation of the digital creativity would be ways to earn money. For example band’s live performances or the T-shirts and books sold by webcomic artists.

At the moment, though, the main problem is not so much finding ways for the individual artists to make money off their creativity. There are plenty of people exploring new ways to make a living through their digital creativity, whether through ads, merchandise, live performances, or other such.

The main problem is the enormous cowardice which rules the education, media, and art institutions currently owning the vast majority of copyrighted material in existence today. Lawrence Lessig argued convincingly that it is these institutions that will need to lead the way towards copyright reform.

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