Copyright law is an important part of society. It allows authors to make money on the works they produce and gives an incentive to create more. Society is made better by the artists and authors work.
However, changes in copyright laws over the years have turned an idea to boost creative output into one of the biggest blocks on creative output. Even the Catholic Church agrees. The Pope sent a letter to the World Intellectual Copyright Organization (which we downloaded off bitTorrent) saying excessive zeal for copyright was harming society. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to see how copyright law can harm society. Just consider how copyright can harm…
1. Classic Television Shows
The advent of the DVD was a boon to the television industry. Old shows relegated to late night syndication or TV Land became a cash cow as people paid out for nostalgia in an easy-to-use format. Given Hollywood’s love of turning every television show into a film or reboot, it stands to reason they’d exploit every popular television show of the past to DVD, since there is no new production costs or need to pay fly-by-night writers to give the product a gritty reboot.
So if you were to seek shows such as WKRP in Cincinnati or The Wonder Years, you expect to choose between buying individual seasons or springing for the super-special boxed set of the entire series. Unfortunately not only can you not get a DVD boxed set, but those few episodes you get aren’t the same episodes you remember growing up with.
The reason has to do with music license rights. WKRP in Cincinnati is set in a rock and roll station and The Wonder Years uses period music. However, both series came out before DVD made TV series on home video feasible. That means that when music rights were signed no provision was made for home video royalties.
As a result, music companies are demanding royalties that make releasing DVDs with the original music impossible. When WKRP came out with a DVD of the first season in 2007, they replaced the 1970’s era music with generic rock music. This led to outrage from fans, who did not grow up listening to some generic crap when sitting around pot circles and masturbating to the Farrah Fawcett Red Swimsuit Poster.
The same concerns have limited releases of The Wonder Years. The Wonder Years has only been released a “Best of” DVD and the Christmas Special, both DVD releases with the original music taken out of it. Even then both DVDs are over $70 to purchase. Over 300 pieces of music were used in the 115 episode run, making it economically impossible to enjoy the show in its original glory.
2. Back Issues of Important Periodicals
Many of the greatest and most influential periodicals have required the use of freelancers to fill their pages. During most of the history of copyright the agreement covered first publishing rights and reprint, since that was all that was expected. This failed to account for future uses, such as electronic storage.
When the New York Times tried to offer a digital database of it’s past article, it was sued by the National Writer’s Union because they did not secure rights from the writers. This started a major debate between copyright holder’s compensation rights and keeping the nation’s historic information open. For most of us, this doesn’t matter after we leave college, but for historians, journalists, lawyers and researchers, this could make access to information prohibitively difficult.
Even readers of popular magazines will find trouble getting quality digital copies. When National Geographic sold a “Complete National Geographic” CD-ROM compilation, they got sued for copyright infringement. They won the case, on the grounds that the media used scans that were “in context”, but National Geographic has not issued a complete digital collection since, depriving future generations of native boobies. The New Yorker, which released a DVD compilation, did it in context as a result of the ruling, so much so that you can’t use a basic search function nor can you use the DVDs on a computer (unless you know how to hack it).
3. Hip hop music distribution
Hip hop music, while commercialized, still has a lot of its roots in the streets. Aspiring hip hop artists work the underground music scene as they build up their writing and make their demo.
An important part of budding music are underground mixed-tape DJs. They compile mixes of established and new artists, often without getting permission from the music labels. They are the taste makers of the hip-hop world, and are so influential music companies send them music hoping they will use it in their mixes to promote their artists.
Normally you think this would be a beneficial relationship, but never count on the RIAA to recognize that. DJ Don Cannon and DJ Drama, to prominent mixed taped DJs, had their studio raided with police and the RIAA working together. This despite the fact that RIAA member music labels routinely gave the pair free music to distribute under the table.
4.Reselling Works of Art
Imagine you are walking down the street one day and you are accosted by a homeless man trying to sell his painting out of the back of a van. He claims his works are genius and you buy one for fifty bucks just to quiet him down and get the hell out of there.
A few years later you see the homeless man again, only now he’s not homeless, he’s bathed and is a rising star in the art world.
Suddenly his works are selling for thousands and that $50 painting you use to cover the weird stain on the wall is worth more. You can now sell it at a mad profit and have a story to tell the strippers you’ll rent. But if you live anywhere in Europe, Australia or California, expect to give that homeless man a cut of your profits.
Droit de suite is a French law that gives artists copyright over the original work, meaning that every time it gets resold, some money goes to the artist or the estate. The law came as the result of the families of artists suffering after World War I, while the artists paintings were being resold for record profits. However, tracking down the artists can be an expensive task. According to the Wall Street Journal California has an agency that spends a lot of resources tracking down artists, often for small amounts of money.
The droit de suite scheme is even being viewed favorably by the book publishing industry. With Amazon allowing quick resale of books, many publishers want to collect royalties from people reselling the already expensive $20 hardcovers for much cheaper, because like the RIAA, they believe you can build your customer base by shaking down your customers for anything they’ve got.
5. Reselling Your Non-Art Crap
Perhaps you don’t do much business with hobos, so you don’t have to worry about droit de suite. But you buy a lot of other stuff, and sometimes you have to unload it on eBay, Craigslist or a garage sale. Dumping your old stuff is a good way to get some quick cash and find new uses for old stuff.
But a lot of that stuff includes trademarks from the companies that produced the item. That has become the basis of a lawsuit between Costco and Omega, the maker of luxury watches. Omega is unhappy that Costco sells watches for less than the price authorized dealers are required to sell. However, Costco bought the watches on the “grey market” from third party distributors that bought overstock watches from dealers, making it completely legal. Omega is trying to claim that it’s trademark logo is on the product and selling the product is a violation.
While not all of us are buying $1,200 watches (That’s with the Costco discount), imagine a company that is desperate for money and rather than invest wisely and develop new products, tries to use Omega arguement to prevent the resale of their goods. Imagine roving lawyers sending you royalty bills for reselling your old iPod on eBay or your old car on Craigslist. Would you ever really be able to own anything?
6. Comparing Prices on Medical Services
When you go to the doctor, do you know how much his services cost? Do you know how they compare to other doctors in the area? If you have health insurance, you probably don’t care much, but if you are uninsured, this can be an important way to prevent bankruptcy. But how would you go about finding that information? If you hoped to look online or on a phone app, you’re out of luck, and you can blame the American Medical Association.
The AMA has created Current Procedural Terminology, which basically codifies procedures for insurance purposes and creates efficient standards. It has a code for every standard procedure and even a few only Dr. House would use. All would be well and good if this were available in a database or in a low cost book. But in order to use the codes. But the AMA charges for the ability to use the codes, to the tune of $70 million a year and limits who can use them.
Due to the fact that Medicare and Medicaid require the exclusive use of the AMA codes, and government health care insuring 25% of Americans, every other insurance company follows the codes. Since they have copyright over the codes, they can prevent people they don’t want from using them, including developers of price comparison websites and phone apps. Their member doctors really don’t want to compete on price with each other and their de facto monopoly status means they can add on additional cost to the nation’s healthcare.