Copyright must accomodate free expression

Here's another great post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in honor of Copyright Week, explaining the relationship between copyright and free expression. Copyright is a monopoly on speech — the right to decide, within limits, who can express themselves with certain words, tunes, and images — so it's important that the law be structured so that monopoly doesn't jeopardize free debate and artistic expression.

Arts groups often have a blind spot here, staunchly defending free speech right up until it conflicts with copyright, and then stopping dead. But if you support free speech except where it conflicts with copyright, then your free speech movement is practically irrelevant to the age of the Internet, since all expression on the Internet involves making copies, and thus interacting with copyright.

Or as EFF's legal director Cindy Cohn likes to say, "We know you love the First Amendment, but we want you to share."

It's hard to look in the mirror and see what you fear. It's easier to deny it or try to explain it away. That's why many supporters of ever-more-restrictive copyright law insist so emphatically that copyright never suppresses speech. Copyright rewards and enables speech, they say, therefore it cannot be a tool of censorship.

This is a little like saying that because X-rays are used to treat cancer, they can never cause cancer. Of course, X-rays can both treat cancer and cause it, depending on the dose and accurate targeting. Copyright is likewise: well-crafted, appropriately limited, it may reward and strengthen creativity. Applied carelessly and indiscriminately, it punishes and suppresses creativity.

In the American legal tradition, there are only a few narrow categories of self-expression that are not protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, and those categories are not permitted to grow. Yet when the mouthpieces of Big Media insist that our guarantees of free speech do not limit the scope of copyright law, they are inviting the creep of censorship that so many creative people have fought against. It's dangerous to treat copyright as a special exception to free speech, no matter how passionate and heartfelt the cries of "piracy!" Those who would use the law to silence speech that they call libel, sedition, blasphemy, hateful, hurtful, disquieting all make passionate cases for why they need special treatment. They argue that suppressing "bad" speech promotes harmony, order, happiness, and even prevents violence, arguably the most important function of any government (not that censorship actually prevents violence, but that's the argument and it's appealing to many). Copyright is no different. The Russian government has used claims of copyright infringement to silence the independent press. People the world over misuse the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make others' political viewpoints disappear.

EFF has six principles for copyright week that you can sign onto.

Copyright Shouldn't Be Free Speech's Blind Spot