We live in an increasingly complex technological society. We need the help of experts to understand issues that affect our daily lives. Copyright, for example. But excessive copyright law can create monopolies of knowledge and monopolies of culture that can isolate us from understanding and from the ability to act as citizens.
Take the case of global warming. By now it is obvious that there has been a media failure; scientists have been unable to communicate effectively with the public. (Even many who dispute global warming would agree on this point.) The Internet offers a chance for additional detail and analysis beyond what will fit in a newspaper story or 30 seconds of television. But, reading comments on an online news story, you will find many commenters claiming global warming is a fraud. Arguments are grounded in media reports; references to actual scientific studies are scarce.
Much of the public research about climate, as with other issues, is reserved for a class of academics. As a student at Simon Fraser University I can go online and read scientific journal articles about climate change. When I graduate I will lose my library card. I can pay for a new one, but it will not include online journal access. I will have to trek up to the top of Burnaby Mountain to read the public research—and even then, I will not be able to share the articles I find.
This is not a choice of scientists, who want to reach the public, or librarians who have fought for public access. The limitation is demanded by journal publishers who hold the copyright to journal articles. This is a monopoly of knowledge enabled by control over distribution secured by copyright. If you are an academic or you can afford to pay, you have access. The public is locked out.
Monopolies of culture
This is only half the story. Why have opponents of global warming science been so effective at getting their message out? The answer is because they have appealed not to reason, but to emotion—to how people live their everyday lives. People have come to believe that if we act on carbon emissions they will lose things they love: they will lose their houses, their cars, their way of life.
Of course feelings matter. In the end we care about the environment precisely because of how it will affect our lives and those of our children. The problem here is tremendously unequal access to the resources of persuasion. Reason is not enough to explain why something matters. We love our houses and our cars because we have been sold them through emotion, through associations with music, with television, with movies—through things that reach us in our hearts. And though we are free to repeat the ideas of the scientists, the culture that resonates with us is owned. Its use is reserved for those who can afford to pay.
The irony is that the effectiveness and value of culture is something we ourselves produce. The more we invest in culture, the more we care about it, the more we feel it becomes a part of us, the more it can be used to influence us. Let me give an example.
A couple of years ago CBC decided not to renew the license for the old Hockey Night in Canada theme song. Canadians protested in the thousands. They sent letters to the editor. They flooded the comments pages on the CBC website. They said, “Pay what it takes: this music is part of my life.” When CTV bought the rights the price was rumoured to be in the millions.
I guarantee you that when CBC first played that song it was not worth millions of dollars. Don’t get me wrong—it is a fine piece of music, perfect for what it does. But although it is not the only tune that could have done the job so well, hockey fans did not want just any piece of music. They wanted that particular song. They wanted the music they had grown up with, the music of their memories, a soundtrack of their lives. It meant more and more to them year after year. By investing their hearts in the music and the game they made it meaningful. They made it valuable. Ironically, they made it too expensive for the CBC.
This love for the culture we put our hearts into is why artists are so passionate about their work. They feel the most attached to it because they have invested the most in it. They feel it is part of them and they are part of it. This concept is at the heart of copyright, in what are called moral rights: the right to be associated with and given credit for your work.
Control of distribution
With the expansion of the Internet we have witnessed an outpouring of creativity. Millions of amateur webpages, photos, book reviews, and videos testify to a drive to create and a hunger to share what we have made. It does not really matter whether that baby video on YouTube means something to you or to me, but that it means something to the person who filmed it or the grandmother who watched it. More and more people are expressing themselves and feeling the love that comes with that investment. Increasingly, that love is being captured through copyright.
Players of the StarCraft video game have long invented and shared maps for playing the game. Some of these maps are so good that they became more popular than those created by the professionals at Blizzard, the company that created the game. With StarCraft II, Blizzard saw an opportunity. To play the game you must agree to assign to Blizzard the copyright in any maps you create. When you create a map, Blizzard owns it. Blizzard has leveraged its copyright to control what you create.
Take the example of Apple’s iPad. The iPad is not just a digital gadget. It is a distribution channel owned and controlled by Apple. Inside the iPad there is a digital lock: a piece of software that limits what a device can do. The lock is controlled by the manufacturer—by Apple—not by you, the device’s owner. Through the lock Apple can stop you from doing just about anything they don’t like, such as installing software Apple has not approved. You may own the iPad, but Apple determines what you can do with it.
Mark Fiore is a political cartoonist. He created an iPad app for displaying his cartoons and submitted it to Apple for approval. Apple rejected the app because, and I quote, “it contains content that ridicules public figures”. As it happens, Fiore won a Pulitzer Prize for his work. In response to public outcry Apple reconsidered and approved the app. If you win a Pulitzer Prize, you can probably get your art into the App Store. If not, you’re taking your chances. Because your iPad is a distribution channel owned by Apple.
Bill C-32, currently before Parliament, would make it illegal to work around a digital lock. Critics argue that this allows companies to create private law; in the case of Mark Fiore, ridiculing public figures could be transformed into a violation of copyright. The justification for the law is that it would prevent copyright infringement. It won’t. We all have access to the technology for copying. Software for circumventing digital locks is easily available on the Internet. The law can’t monitor us in the privacy of our homes.
What the law will do is control the artists. Artists are at the heart of the potential for culture to ask questions, to reach beyond the logic of reason to explain why issues matter in our lives. When culture is more than just a way to sell cars or houses it must be something we do in collaboration with other people, not secretly in private. Artists are at the centre of that collaboration. Because artists make their work public, they cannot afford to break the law. Control of the materials of creation and the channels of distribution means control of artists.
When copyright is malformed it leads to monopolies of knowledge and monopolies of culture that capture artists, reserving for the few the resources that we all need to understand, communicate, and act in our complex world.
Geof Glass is a PhD student studying communication at Simon Fraser University, and a professional software developer. This article is based on his remarks at Media Democracy Day.