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Copyright's Dirty Secret

From at least one perspective, this is a good time to be alive. We have an abundance of affordable cultural goods from around the world. Better communications have all but removed some hideous inequities. It's no longer the case, for example, that Northern Soul artists were dying in poverty ignorant of the fact that thousands of people were celebrating their music on the other side of the Atlantic at all night parties. So the current structures, for all their problems, benefit both the artists and the public.

As we've pointed out before, storage and transmission technologies are always in flux, and the social mechanisms we invent around technology flex and morph to fit. The principle of copyright seems to endure as stubbornly as capitalism did for Marx, who characterized it as being in a state of permanent and terminal crisis.

That's not a bad way to think about copyright: some boundary case somewhere is always threatening to break the agreement for good. Outside of some of the internet's echo chambers, however, the sky isn't falling, and there's a broad popular consensus in favor of the principle itself. We just haven't arrived at the social mechanism yet; although, there's a consensus emerging on what it should roughly look like.

Computer networks, in their many forms, aren't going to go away.

I've had hundreds of conversations with people in the music business, from artists to promoters to recording rights holders, and the subject of the inequity of copyright has only been raised twice. I didn't meet anyone who didn't have a sense of injustice about some or several parts of the business - phrases like "thieves" and "greedy bastards" came up a lot - but when copyright puts food on the table, it's hard to argue it's at fault.

So what we have is a compensation crisis, not a copyright crisis.

The only people who insist otherwise seem to be the computer lobbyists. And here the argument begins to look less utopian than it does a case of special pleading. The system is broken, they plead, because their particular boundary condition is under stress.

I'm really sorry to have prick this bubble: many people want to Get Their War On over copyright. Things looked much more perilous for rights holders in the 1920s with the advent of radio, but things, as they do, worked out. And I can think of other copyright injustices today that are as bad or worse than having to make a phone call to a rights holder, and here's one in particular.

Two years ago a film biography of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath appeared. The audience for this movie in its various forms was millions - and it didn't contain a single line of poetry, as both the Hughes and Plath literary estates refused permission. What, you might wonder, was the point of a film about two poets that contained none of their poetry?

Writers have a much harder time clearing rights from literary estates than do budding film makers, a favorite example of the Creative Commons evangelicals. It's simply another boundary that's under stress. There's a tremendous consensus too that copyright terms have been extended to the detriment of the public domain. The internet enthusiasts have fought this case, but lost so badly that the US Supreme Court is unlikely to return to the issue for many years.

The social contract that's endured for over a hundred years is really simple. The rights holders can't control the flow of culture - but they can make money off it, and this is willingly given with various provisos. As long as they don't get too greedy, and charge too much; as long as they continue to invest in the storage and transmission technologies that make it more accessible; and most importantly if they ensure that the money goes round fairly: then everyone's pretty much happy.

So why the dystopia and high anxiety?

I've written as much about DRM as anyone in the past five years - and some of the discoveries have been quite nasty. But I don't believe, in the end, that the sky will fall. This faith is less based on heroic hackers riding to the rescue, and rather more because the people who put the DRM on music don't think it will work either. We can expect a Prohibition-length era of lousy value for money songs and great inconvenience, but privately, rights holders know that if their business is to have a future, it's going to be based on finding and promoting talent - not on controlling you.

To really understand why such themes of control, paranoia and domination occur with such people, and to understand Creative Commons thinking, we have to look into the mind of the techno-utopian. Ugh, you're thinking ... and no, you don't have to dress up as a Star Trek character to go there. But the psychology is really interesting, and turns out to be quite different to how the rest of us see the world.

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