The Stanford Review is proudly conservative in its views, which makes this article on copyright – “Promoting Science and Useful Arts: The Growth of Copyright Since 1976” – that much more interesting. Written by its Managing Editor, Omkar Muralidharan, the conclusions are not what you would necessarily expect:
As Lessig argues, copyright is robbing culture of its lifeblood—collaboration. Truly vibrant culture requires the freedom to build on, modify, and borrow from others’ work. Copyright makes this process difficult, if not impossible. The creator must apply for permission to use each recognizable source of inspiration, and must change his or her work if denied. Copyright expansion is pushing us toward a sterile, lifeless “culture” where everyone pretends to work in isolation, afraid that others will hurl accusations of theft and sue for damages.
Is this necessarily our future? The economic factors that have driven copyright expansion show little sign of abating, but for the first time, there is hope on the cultural front. The development and spread of easy media creation tools means more and more people are running into copyright barriers, while peer-to-peer networks and other sharing technologies mean vast numbers of people infringe copyright frequently. All this means copyright law is beginning to be critically examined, despite the strong trend toward ever more restrictive laws. This combination of factors is pushing us toward a critical point—the future of copyright will be determined relatively soon. Only time will tell if we will choose a rich culture where people share freely, or a poor one where everything is owned.
The cultural argument that the article advances is an interesting one. But ultimately it is a subset of the economic argument. In an information/knowledge driven economy, the creative isolation that Muralidharan fears due to restrictive IPR is formula for economic stagnation – not just sterile culture. Information and knowledge need to be shared in order to be utilized and expanded. Overly restrictive controls on information are like shutting off the water supply to agricultural crops — insuring nothing grows. While that may be in the interest of certain information holders — insuring that competitors don’t grow by withholding information — such a tactic is detrimental to the economy as a whole and will eventually backfire on the practitioner as their creative growth dries up as well. As has been stated over and over again, balance between users and producers of information is key. And the current system is out of balance.
I’m not sure that I agree with the article’s statement that the future of copyright will be determined relatively soon. I think that this is an ongoing process of constantly re-balancing. Right now, that re-balancing is sorely overdue.