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Some thoughts on Copyrights and Copywrongs

Copyrights and Copywrongs by Siva Vaidhyanathan offers an in depth look at the history of copyright law and how it has morphed from its original intent.  Vaidhyanathan proposes three goals for the book.  The first of which is to “trace the development of American copyright law through the twentieth century…it will proceed to a series of accounts of how copyright law affected American literature, film, television, and music” (p. 15).  He walks us through key figures such as Mark Twain, Learned Hand, and D.W. Griffith.   Twain’s role as an advocate against piracy but in favor of artists building on other artist’s work is extensively discussed. The author also provides us with a description of the various copyright laws and acts.  This discussion starts with the Statute of Anne which as enacted in 1710 in Britain and is considered by some to be the first copyright legislation.   The Statue of Anne had copyright lasting for only 14 years and could be renewed for another 14.  This was done to encourage “learning and create an incentive to produce more books” (p.40).  From there we are taken though the various acts and court cases that have morphed our system into one that promotes the established over the emerging and dampens creativity.  The history ends at about the year 2000 (the book was published in 2001) with the last act being the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.  This act “grants complete power to allow or deny access to a work with the producer or publisher of that work.  The producer may prohibit access for those users who might have hostile intentions toward the work” (p. 248).  This may include critiques and scholars. The second goal set forth for this book is to “succinctly and clearly outline the principles of copyright while describing the alarming erosion of the notion that copyright should protect specific expression but not the ideas that lie beneath the expressions” (p. 15). The author argues for copyright law as it was originally intended; to encourage creativity, cultural expression, the spread of ideas, and the sharing of information.  The rights of the creator are almost a by-product of the more important goal of creating a well of information in the public domain.  However, copyright has shifted into a form of property law which stalls creativity.  The third goal of the book is to “argue that American culture and politics would function better under a system that guarantees “thin” copyright protection” (p. 15).  The author continually advocates for “Thin” copyright protection that is “just strong enough to encourage and reward aspiring artists, writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs, yet porous enough to allow full and rich democratic speech and the free flow of information” (p. 5). Rather than “’Thick’ copyright protection [which] has a chilling effect on creativity” (p.16).  The book left me reevaluating my stance on copyright protection and reweighing the benefits of these laws.

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