Copyright & Patent Law Reform

First actual global issue post!

Before we talk about the issues, it’s important to understand what copyright and patents are.

In a nutshell: they protect the incentives of creative people. Or, at least, those are their intentions.

If you have six minutes, here’s a great video from CGP Grey introducing copyright and discussing some of the issues surrounding it, particularly the counterproductive extensions of copyright lengths.

If you don’t feel like watching a video, here’s a rundown of why copyright is a thing: If you spent a few years writing a book and publish it, you want to be able to earn money from selling the book. Therefore, you don’t want people to be able to copy the book and sell it cheaply; otherwise nobody would pay to read your book. Without these restrictions, people wouldn’t be willing to devote their lives to books or other creative endeavors, because they’d go bankrupt. And society would be worse off without the creative output of these individuals. So, society sets up copyright to motivate creative individuals to create.

That’s what the idea is. Fine and dandy, right?

But there is a flip side: creative works inspire other creative works. Nearly all creative works are built on other creative works. That’s part of the creative process.

So when copyright is enforced too strictly, it ends up acting against its original purpose: while it was intended to protect and encourage creative works, it can also prevent creative works from ever existing, by banning them if they are based on other works. And just because something is based on other works doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable for society to have. To give just one clichéd example (cited by both the above and the next video), Disney is well known for taking public domain stories and fairy tales and turning them into amazing movies. Does that make Disney movies any less valuable?

Some of you may not be convinced. Maybe you think, okay, it would be cool if we were allowed to make anime editions of Star Wars, but since we can’t, it’s still easy to come up with original ideas and create those, right? If these problems seem somewhat abstract, I recommend Andy Baio’s talk on remix culture, copyright, and fair use. The first eight minutes or so explore how deeply remixes are embedded in our culture (spoiler: really zarking deep). Later, the video delves into his personal, and quite frightening, brush with copyright law, starting 18:43.

A summary of the key point at the end: under current copyright law, many remixes — including your favorite song as background music to a video, even covering a song on YouTube or writing a fan-fiction story — may technically be illegal. There is an escape clause, called “fair use”, but it’s not a clearly-defined law; only a court can decide what is fair use and what isn’t. Even if you think they’re not and you think you have a convincing case your usage is “fair” and organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) agree with you so much that they are willing to represent you pro bono — if somebody sues you, just the court fees can go into hundreds of thousands of US dollars. The alternative for you is to settle out of court for less money… which can still be a lot!

But, especially among us teenagers, who has never adapted something copyrighted? We are constantly copying random images from the Internet for school projects with no regard for their copyright status; we frequently make videos with pop music in the background to store our memories, including all the graduation videos I know of. The issues demonstrated by the video above are the reasons that I don’t torrent music or pirate movies, but I know I’ve made modified copyrighted images that are floating in the internet in many places, and while my work can’t compare to the effort in creating the images in the first place, I’m still proud of my effort and I don’t think anybody was hurt in the process. I’d be sad to see them ruled illegal. And even sadder to get sued for $32,500 dollars over them.

Patents suffer from a similar issue, as you can see from this John Oliver video:

This is the same issue as above, with innovators getting sued over patent infringement and usually paying by settling out of court because it’s so much cheaper than actually fighting the case, thus harming their innovation, with an added twist: people and organizations can get patents for technology they weren’t the first to develop or technology they’re not using. And they do get those patents, because those patents can be used to sue people and get lots of money! The costs to society are correspondingly bigger; a 2011 study by Bessen et al. estimated the costs at $80 billion per year. The U.S. Government also has a study on the matter, which notes how individual cases can involve up to $25 million per case and shows how the number of patent cases has skyrocketed. (To be fair, this CNBC article notes a drop in cases in 2014, but seeing as there are still more cases than any year before 2012, it seems premature to say that the trend has reversed.)

This is a daunting issue. Influencing legal precedent is way out of the league of most people who want to change the world, especially potential readers of this blog. Even donating to the EFF might be too much to ask (though if you are not a broke student, I hope you consider doing so.)

Fortunately, there is a simple way to start the change with your own works, by loosening the copyright restrictions on them. Put a Creative Commons license on your work. These carefully written, legally detailed licenses are designed to allow others to use and share your work, without allowing shady things like claiming the work as their own. CC licenses are customizable; you can choose whether to allow others to modify your work and share the result and whether they can use it for commercial purposes.

And the licenses are well-established on the Internet and in the world. Wikipedia uses one. The U.S. Government uses one (for third-party materials; its own materials are in the public domain.) Flickr hosts many images under such licenses, as does deviantArt although apparently their resources for finding CC media are shadier. TED Talks use one, MIT OpenCourseWare uses one (scroll to the bottom), xkcd uses one. Kevin MacLeod (incompetech) uses it, and you can find his soundtracks everywhere, including in that CGP Grey video (look for the attribution after 4:54) and in some school projects made by myself. CGP Grey himself does it. Look for the icons starting 5:18.

If you don’t want to let the whole world use all of your creative output, you don’t have to commit all the way; you can apply the license just to certain videos or photos that you want people to share freely, as Al Jazeera or did, for example.

Naturally, I’m doing the same for this blog post too.

Creative Commons License
This blog post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

I don’t know yet whether other GINions who might post on this blog would agree (or whether anybody else will post on this blog at all…) so I’m not yet declaring it for this blog, but I hope to soon. Will you join me?

If you still want more things to read, you can check out the copyright tag on Techdirt. Also, Eevee wrote a brief overview of copyright that’s more tech-oriented. As for patent law and patent trolling, the EFF also has a website about it, Trolling Effects.


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  1. Pingback: Signal Boost | BetaWorldProblems

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