Everyone wants to be a copyright gatekeeper, and gatekeepers are bad for copyright

I've got a new feature up on Internet Evolution today, a piece called "Internet ©rapshoot: How Internet Gatekeepers Stifle Progress," about how everybody wants to be a gatekeeper -- the studios and publishers, the bookstores and online retailers and theaters, the "creators rights' groups" and how that ends up screwing everyone:
So, how do you use copyright to ensure that the future is more competitive and thus more favorable to creators and copyright industries?

It's pretty easy, really: Use your copyrights to lower the cost of entering the market instead of raising it.

What if the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had started out by offering MP3 licenses on fair terms to any wholesaler who wanted to open a retailer (online or offline), so that the cost of starting a Web music store was a known quantity, rather than a potentially limitless litigation quagmire?

What if the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the North American Broadcasters Association made their streams available to anyone who paid a portion of their advertising revenue (with a guaranteed minimum), allowing 10 million video-on-demand systems to spring up from every garage in the world?

What if the Authors Guild had offered to stop suing Google for notional copyright violations in exchange for Google contributing its scans to a common pool of indexable books available to all search-engines, ensuring that book search was as competitive as Web search?

Copyright is a powerful weapon, and it grows more powerful every day, as lawmakers extend its reach and strength. Funny thing about powerful weapons, though: Unless you know how to use them, they make lousy equalizers. As they say in self-defense courses, "Any weapon you don't know how to use belongs to your opponent."

Recording artists get an extra 45 years of copyright, and it's promptly taken from them by the all-powerful record labels, who then use it to strengthen their power by extending their grasp over distribution channels. Authors are given the right to control indexing of their works, and it's promptly scooped up by Google, who can use it to prevent competitors from giving authors a better deal.

Internet ©rapshoot: How Internet Gatekeepers Stifle Progress


  1. Damn, Cory. That’s a really nice summary of all that’s wrong with copyright these days.

    I’d add one thing: Shorten copyrights. It makes no sense that the terms that were considered adequate when making copies required a printing press are inadequate in the age of instant copies. They should be shorter, not longer.

  2. It isn’t in the interest of rights holders to make things easier for future rights holders. If you already have a platinum selling artist, you want the market to be as uncompetitive as possible so that you can milk money from the artist for as long as possible.

    Controlling distribution is the way to keep profits coming in when the attractiveness of your product to cosumers is unreliable. If barriers to entry are high it won’t matter if someone else has a better product than you.

    Big business is about keeping a constant gap between you and entrepreneurs who will try and take market share away from you. Since anyone can make music and write books, the established companies need to create that gap in other ways. This is why they’re in deep with all methods of distribution and advertising.

    They want to make it so that even if there’s a superior artist out there, no-one will know he exists. They don’t want to promote equality for this upstart artist, that’s very risky because suddenly they have to worry much much more about the quality of their product. This is especially difficult when the very connection to big business can be a disadvantage in the market.

  3. That was a long post, so here’s a summary:

    You’re saying that it’s in the interests of creative industries to lower barriers to entry. I think that would make them compete on level ground with other artists, so they’ll never do it.

    SONY BGM et al can’t reliably make better music than anyone else. But they can reliably promote and sell music better than anyone else. Why would they compete in an area where they have no advantage?

  4. The more they tighten their copyright grip the more copyrighted works will slip through their fingers.*

    * Used without permission!

  5. Another extreme example of barriers to entry and cordoning off the public domain into private plantations through copyright abuse is the market for legal information, particularly primary legal information such as laws, statutes, opinions, hearings, and briefs.

  6. “Copyright is a powerful weapon, and it grows more powerful every day, as lawmakers extend its reach and strength.”

    The Pirate Party UK is here to stop that!

    If you care about your rights on the Internet and live in Britain, you should join us. If you live in another country, join the Pirate Party for your country.


  7. The biggest problem is the “gatekeeping” mindset, agreed. But the actual creators — artists, writers, musicians, etc. — have never had proper representation and as a result their rights are trampled at least twice. Once by the “associations” that purport to defend creators but actually only defend the lawyers and executives who control the funds creators receive and dole out scraps to the creators. And again by “consumers” who rightfully see the greedy “associations” as the evil empire and feel justified in the super-distribution of creators works as digital media.

    The new gatekeepers — Apple, Amazon, etc. might offer a squarer deal to the creators (unless the deal is with a label or studio) but treat creators’ works as commodities and have flipped the value equation from software to hardware. Hardware is fucking useless without software, and there is far too little respect for software.

    The RIAA, MPAA, etc. say they’re looking out for the creators and that the “pirates” are stealing from the “artists.” Their crocodile tears put a white hat on super-distribution, the old Robin Hood trick. The file traders say they’re only hurting corporations, stuff wants to be free, super-distribution is not theft and each freely distributed file does not equal a lost sale. Both sides of this argument are self-serving and disingenuous. Associations and pirates are both thieves stealing from creators.

    Now that digital distribution is maturing neither of these positions are morally tenable. You want to do the right thing? Pay the creator, don’t steal from the creator. The industry “associations” and groups of lawyers comprising “publishers rights organizations,” like brick and mortar retailers are no longer necessary now that physical packaged goods are obsolete. This layer of vampires can now be eradicated and deserve no sympathy or compensation.

    Once corporations cannot steal money from creators, piracy should stop and creators should be paid for their work. Taking people’s work without compensation is unethical. This is simple game theory. If no one pays for software, then no one creates software worth paying for. It’s not about copyright, patents and law. It’s about doing the right fucking thing.

  8. Wow. Nicely done. It’s a rare comfort to know that not everyone on this planet has hallucinated an ability to possess imaginary things. I understand you have written some books. I intend to read them, thank you.

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