Copyright and American Culture


Written for English class. The only guideline was that it be "interesting."

According to Mike Graziano and Lee Raine's "The Music Downloading Deluge," over 43 million Americans are considered felons due to illegal file sharing. It seems there is a point at which a law that makes 20% of the American population felons is somehow off. These copyright laws have many more far reaching effects than this, though. They extend to the past, where the American culture was born and built upon, creating the culture we live in today. These laws are becoming increasingly strict, severely limiting the ability to create, to rip, mix, and burn, an ability that The United States was founded upon. It is for this reason and more that modern copyright laws are effectively destroying an essential part of American culture.

Since America's conception "creative property" has been allowed to pass from copyright into the public domain, a conglomerate of all released creative works that are free to be used, remixed, and distributed without any permission whatsoever. Indeed, America's framers included this provision in the Constitution under the so-called "Progress Clause." This clause states that after a "limited time" all creative works are required to pass into the public domain. The United States has reaped the benefits of a thriving public domain, not necessarily commercially, but socially, too; that is, until now. A few creators and lawmakers are teaming up to extend the term of copyright, which in turn extends the term of any created work made in the same year as the original piece. This extended copyright term bars modern society from drawing on and using the past hundred years' worth of created property that would otherwise be in the public domain. New technology, however, allows content to be archived, copied, remixed, and distributed with ease, and is thus changing the copyright landscape.

With the conception of the internet, the scope of copyright has changed. Every distributed file is a copy of some sort, and is thus protected by copyright laws. This is not inherently bad for it rewards and protects creators' intellectual property, their creation. However, the systems that protect this intellectual property are not solely affecting these artists; they are affecting the culture as a whole, turning the modern society into a "permission society." With the internet, and the ease of distributing content which the internet allows, it is unclear who owns what. Therefore, when people wish to use a work and build upon it in some way, they cannot be sure if they are breaking the law, and their creativity is stifled. In order to create, they must ask for permission according to copyright law. These laws state that all intellectual property has an automatic binding copyright. In a world where creative abilities are becoming increasingly important, laws cannot afford to restrict creativity.

Neither can big business afford to restrict creativity as it is currently doing. Large companies often act as agents that distribute content that creators make. People with ideas for movies, television shows, and songs must come to large companies if they want a chance to have their creation seen or heard on a large scale. The power to distribute is being increasingly condensed into the hands of a few, these large companies, which means that these few essentially control creativity, hardly the democratic ideal the founding fathers had in mind. The internet has started to change this concentration and these large companies have sought to curb the internet's growth, partially by lobbying for stricter and longer copyright terms and partially by a technology called Digital Rights Management (DRM). These companies, with their exorbitant wealth, have lobbied successfully to have laws changed that benefit them directly and often ignore cultural implications. Companies have also ignored the cultural implications in their employment of DRM. DRM is a piece of code attached to files that stops a song or movie from being copied. However, this effectively assumes that the user of a work is a criminal when all he or she may wish to do is copy a CD totheir iPod or watch a DVD on their computer. Consider someone loaning their friend a book. With DRM, this action would not only be forcefully rejected, but any attempt to circumvent this technology could result in very severe legal repercussions, yet another blow to not just creativity, but also human rights.

It is clear that there is a problem with illegal file sharing now. It is equally clear that copyright laws need to change to help solve that problem, but at the same time not limit people's rights to create. For this to happen, creators, not big businesses, must be heard and represented in the law. Current law is deviating from those practices established in the Constitution, and depriving society of a flourishing public domain from which to create. Without this public domain, and without the ability to rip, mix, and burn, creativity and thus culture are stifled. The "permission society" that is being created cannot survive with the advent of technology that makes it simple to remix and distribute content. There are efforts to fight these changes, however. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation and the Creative Commons are taking action by "protecting people's digital rights" and providing reasonable licenses that promote the spread of content, respectively. While the scope of copyright is changing and harming culture, there is still hope that America will adhere to its roots and resist these misshapen laws.