What is copyright for?

Something is rotten, it would seem, at the heart of copyright legislation.

Otto von Bismarck definitely had a point when he remarked (allegedly, at least), that “the less people know about how laws and sausages are made, the easier they sleep at night”. That said, if there are unnatural acts being committed in either process, there must be a point at which it’s better to know than not to know.

This article, by Bill Thompson, rightly highlights the dangers of allowing copyright law to degenerate into an unregulated mess, devoid of due process and subject to partisan abuse. That far I agree with him. However, I disagree that the best response is to re-draft the law so that it redresses the balance in favour of the data consumer, as opposed to the copyright holder.

The problem with that approach is that we are all, increasingly, publishers of data and (ideally) copyright-holders… of the information we disclose about ourselves. In fact, I have often made the comment that the rights which so irritate us when they are officiously enforced by media pubishers, are exactly those rights which we would dearly love to be able to enforce when they relate to our personal information. If the laws are to be re-drafted, the aim should not be to rebalance the rights of data consumers and data publishers per se… but to ensure that the rights currently accorded to the ‘traditional’ holders of copyright are extended to all of us.

In other words, it’s time that the laws on publishing were extended to protect all those who publish, and not just those who published before Web 2.0 came along.

Unfortunately, if we adopt Bismarck’s attitude to the law-making process, instances such as the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the UK Digital Economy Bill (DEBill) make one thing quite clear: if you wait until the process has finished before worrying about the result, it will be too late.