Written by Matt Gelfand
Edited by Harry Zhou
A major criticism of the current copyright system is the overbreadth of the protections it affords, in terms of duration, works covered, and uses covered. With the Copyright Act of 1976 and subsequent international treaties and legislation, copyright has become quasi-permanent, and breadth-limiting formalities such as notice and registration requirements have been eliminated. Virtually any use of the creative expressive content in a work is subject to control by a copyright-holder, and attempts to invoke the “Fair Use” exception can result in protracted legal disputes. The result is near-constant technical infringement of copyright, made bearable only by virtue of limited enforcement.
These concerns about breadth highlight the fundamental balance that an intellectual property system must strike between its goals, generally related to a creator or his/her work, and the ways in which it limits use of an idea or expression by the general public or another creator. Debates about copyright law often focus on the success of the copyright system at promoting the goals to which it is directed — incentivizing creation, rewarding creators, protecting artists’ personality interests in their work, and stimulating cultural development — in the context of a modern, networked society. Among these different goals, and among a diverse set of creators, different forms of copyright protection are justified.
Take breadth of protection, for example. A commentator concerned with incentives (the goal) for the creation of high-budget commercial films by movie studios (the users) might argue for a level of protection that is sufficiently strong to provide that incentive, but not so strong as to unnecessarily increase the difficulty of creating films down the line. A commentator concerned with the development of a cultural zeitgeist through the manipulation of popular symbols might argue for weak protections against derivative uses of the work, while at the same time recognizing that protections against verbatim copying provide a useful incentive to create the symbols themselves. The focus of this sort of criticism is on finding an ideal system that does the best job for a commentator’s favored goal or user.
But maybe we should be asking a more fundamental question: should copyright continue to take a one-size-fits-all approach? Perhaps the differently-motivated participants in our modern society would be best served by different copyright systems altogether. For creative professionals and corporations making a substantial investment of time, resources, and/or risk in a creative enterprise, the existing system of economic rights (with exceptions for unprofitable and socially beneficial uses) is at least somewhat appropriate. But for the tortured artist who considers his work to be a reflection of his own personality, a strong system of moral rights may be better. For a fame-obsessed YouTube phenom, a right of attribution alone would suffice; a computer programmer who wants her work to keep serving society, on the other hand, would prefer robust copyleft-style protections to prevent the proprietization of downstream derivative works. A blogger writing purely for the satisfaction of expressing herself might not need any protection at all! The existing copyright system does a bad job serving most of these groups.
This comment begins with a description of the most well-known system of alternative rights designations: the Creative Commons (“CC”) licenses. Different CC licenses will be discussed in the context of the users who are likely to choose them and the real aims of those users. Next, some drawbacks of using the CC license system to carve different rights reservations out of the existing copyright system will be addressed. Finally, this comment will propose two solutions to the homogeneity of the existing system: a radical move to a heterogeneous copyright system, and a more modest change to the copyright registration system. (more…)