Something grated throughout the debate that resulted in the Digital Economy Act here in the UK. I couldn’t quite articulate it until I was pointed by a blog posting towards an excellent article by Lawrence Lessig, “Getting out values around copyright right” (PDF), based on a keynote in 2009 at a conference for educators in the US. It’s a fine article.
The observations at the beginning of the article provide an excellent overview of what are, for me, Lessig’s most important observations about copyright – that the current, digital, meshed society presents many cases for which the antique copyright regime we have now is inadequate. He then goes on to consider how we should respond to this challenge if we are educators, and provides a final explanation of the Google book-scanning issue.
At the end of the article, he concludes with these words:
We are in the middle of a war. My friend the late Jack Valenti used to refer to this as his own “terrorist war,” where the terrorists are our children. We organize and wage war against these terrorists, these pirates. The thing that we—as educators, as scientists, as parents, as people who understand the potential and uses of this technology—need to recognize is that we can’t kill this technology. We can only criminalize it. We’re not going to stop our kids from creating the way they create. We will only drive that creativity underground.
This crucial observation is the missing element to every argument I hear from those fighting to lock down copyright-as-it-is now, instead of seeking to devise a new copyright-as-it-should-be. In the Digitial Economy Bill debate in the House of Commons, the lone SNP politician Pete Wishart argued constantly from the perspective that criminals were stealing his birthright. There is indeed be an aspect of that in the way music is treated on the internet. But equally, there is a dimension in which a new generation is innovating – creating works, devising uses for information and enjoying both – in ways that should rationally be beyond the need for constant, nitpicking copyright clearance.
So in future discussions on the topic of copyright in the digital age – assuming Lessig is correct in the article that radical reform is impossible – I’ll be asking why we are criminalizing innovators rather than accommodating them.