Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Call to Arms: Bring Down the Tyranny of Excessive Copyrights!

E. Delacroix: Liberty leading the People
I am re-reading Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture which I consider one of the best business books of all times. Professor Lessig very eloquently explains the idiosyncrasy and – yes – idiocy of the current copyright laws. This is an area of great interest to me as it directly impacts the use of content which is what I do for a living. I also feel very strongly about the freedom of speech, uncensored culture, free enterprise, and consumer rights. And all those things are being mangled by the current copyrights and content distribution rights.

The book isn’t old but it was published in 2004 which was the pre-Facebook era. Reading the book in the times of social media has put the copyright problems discussed in the book into a new perspective. In short, social media adds a new dimension to the copyright problems today. Let me give you an example.

The LEGO Group, the Danish toy powerhouse, is very interested in having their users share their ideas about how to build various toys out of their blocks. The users are kids and kids have no idea about copyrights. Kids want to build spaceships and structures that they draw upon from popular culture that they are exposed to. Star Wars and Star Trek are a big hit in the popular culture of 6-10 year old boys and so they build Star Wars and Star Trek space ships and characters made from the Lego blocks. So far so good.

Lego encourages its users (remember they are kids) to share their creations via digital models and pictures on their social media site MyLego Network. Lego is of course keenly interested in this kind of engagement since it indirectly stimulates brand loyalty, usage and incremental purchases of their products. But here comes the conundrum.

Lego has signed an agreement with Lucasfilm Ltd. and so discussions about Star Wars space ships and characters are licensed use of copyrighted material. In fact, Lego sells a galore of toys under the Star Wars brand and everybody is happy. But, as far as I know, Lego does not have any agreement with CBS Studios which owns the copyrights for Star Trek. That means that when my son posts a picture of his rendition of Luke Skywalker’s Starfighter in the Lego network, it is perfectly legal.

However, if he posts a picture of his take on Starship Enterprise, he technically violates the CBC copyrights for non-authorized creation and distribution of derivative work. Yes, the copyrights today no longer allow free creation of derivative work based on copyrighted material. And in fact, Lego can be held liable if the picture is shared on a community they sponsor because they effectively profit from it. 

Well, I say, this is nonsense. Like it or not, dear Lucasfilm and CBS, your work is part of our cultural heritage and as such, the use of cultural good has to be accessible to people and serve as source of learning, inspiration, and criticism. I agree that the creator of content should get paid and I agree that a copyright should protect the creation for a reasonable time. But 95 years [basically indefinite] is not a reasonable time - patents are being granted for max 20 years! I also know that the Internet has made it easier for your content to be distributed without a payment. But the excessively paranoid copyright protection you and the rest of Big Media have put in place is not only becoming absurd, it is damaging our culture.

It is a great privilege to become part of any culture. Almost all authors wish they would make it. Most of them create – at least initially – for idealistic reasons such as inspiration or the need to share a story. They don’t start with the need to protect their copyrights. That comes when the money becomes a topic - a topic that you, Big Media, introduce to the artists. You have used your position of strength to make Congress modify the copyright laws to serve your profits and not the interest of the society which the copyrights were originally created for. And you did it out of denial and fear because the world around you has evolved. 

The new technology is threatening your old business models and you have enacted laws that deprecate and ignore that technology. Today, you are the dinosaurs and if you don’t evolve you might become extinct. If you produce content, you need to be part of the culture with everything that distinction carries with it. You have to adapt to the environmental changes and embrace the technology because if you don’t, WE WILL do it for you.

We, the People, have now a new weapon that didn’t exist a few years ago. A weapon that has proven to be so powerful that it can not only put the most powerful man in the world into his office but also overthrow dictators who lost the touch with their people. That weapon is social media – Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Slideshare. And this weapon will soon be aimed at you, Big Media. Millions of people around the world will organize, coordinate, and speak out jointly their will to overthrow the laws that so conveniently protect you.

The copyright and distribution laws have been enacted out of your position of strength because until now, it was you - multi-billion dollar corporations - against the little man. Soon, it will be you against the will of the People. And People have the power to change the laws or even the lawmakers if they are unhappy. No amount of lobby dollars will help you stem this revolution. Don’t wait for that to happen because there is no country of exile for overthrown Big Media dictators.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree that these copyrights are in need of a modern facelift, though I'm not sure we can compare the revolts against governments in Africa and the Middle East (that were supported by social media) to the minor struggles of sharing cool content we have in our charmed lives in North America. That said, I think smart organizations will begin to evolve and embrace social media and how it can expand their brands. We'll be irritated by it and we'll find workarounds. We can influence the decisions makers. But will we actually revolt over it? I'm not so sure.