By Glyn Moody
Most people know about copyright, and have a vague idea how it works. But they probably assume that it is mainly of interest to specialist lawyers, and that its impact on everyday life is minor. That was true 30 years ago, but not today. Copyright is the reason why Amazon can take back remotely ebooks after you have bought them, and why farmers don’t own their tractors.
Modern copyright originates in the Statute of Anne, passed in 1710. It was designed to stop people making unauthorised copies of printed items such as books. Back then, copyright was easy to enforce, because making copies was hard. You would need a printing press to do so, which was easy to find, and simple to destroy. Three hundred years later, most people have a machine in their pockets – the smartphone – that can make perfect copies of any digital file, for effectively zero cost. Moreover, they can send those copies to billions of people around the world, again for near zero cost.
What has changed in those three hundred years is that we have moved from an analogue world – a world of atoms – to a digital world – a world of bits. The problem is that copyright has not changed to reflect this massive shift. We still have copyright laws that are designed for an analogue world, when nearly everyone has gone digital. As a result, every day, probably everyone is breaking copyright law on a massive scale. Back in 2007, John Tehranian, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, calculated that a typical Internet user would be liable for $4.544 billion in potential damages each year as a result of normal Internet use. If anything, the situation today is far worse. Back in 2007, there was no Instagram or TikTok; Twitter had only just been launched, and even Facebook had fewer than 100 million users. Most people online use one or more of these social media services many times every day, making unauthorised copies of images, videos, music and text, without giving it a moment’s thought.
This illegal activity is now so widespread that the copyright industry has been unable to take any action against it. But that wasn’t always the case. In the same year that Tehranian did has calculation, Jammie Thomas, a US single mother of two, was found liable for $222,000 in damages for sharing 24 songs online. Even the presiding judge was appalled by the size of this fine, which he called “unprecedented and oppressive”. He ordered a re-trial, as a result of which the damages were increased to $1.92 million. That extraordinary figure is the tangible result of analogue copyright laws inability to deal sensibly with everyday activities in the digital world.
Companies may have stopped suing single mothers for unauthorised copying these days, but they still abuse the power of copyright in other ways. For example, the shift from physical books to ebooks means you no longer own a copy of the text, as shown by the fact that you can’t generally give it to other people. Because ebooks are digital, publishers can use powerful copyright laws to control how people use them. For libraries, this means that they can rarely lend an ebook freely, but only a certain number of times, or for a certain period of time. After that, they must pay again. In other words, they are simply renting it.
Ordinary book lovers are affected too. For example, in 2009, Amazon removed the text-to-speech option on ebooks that had already been sold, because publishers were unhappy with readers being given this feature without being forced to pay extra for it. The digital nature of the texts meant that Amazon was able to disable this capability remotely over the Internet, without asking permission from the people who had paid for the books. A few weeks later, Amazon demonstrated again that it retained full control over its customers’ purchases. It involved an ebook that was apparently sold by a company without the relevant rights to do so. Amazon’s response was to delete copies of the book from people’s devices remotely. By a nicely ironic twist of fate, the book involved was George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, which depicts a dystopian world where awkward cultural items disappear down a ‘memory hole’.
One of the most serious abuses of copyright results in the inability to repair many products that contain software: programs are protected by copyright, so modifying them without permission can be an infringement on copyright laws. Perhaps the most famous example of this involved tractors manufactured by John Deere. Farmers were refused permission to repair vehicles they thought they had purchased. The company stated: “the vehicle owner receives an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle, subject to any warranty limitations, disclaimers or other contractual limitations in the sales contract or documentation.” In other words, farmers do not own their tractors, merely license them, all thanks to copyright.
However absurd these examples might seem, the situation is likely to get worse, not better. As more domestic devices include software as part of their design, so copyright’s reach will be extended ever deeper into everyday life. The copyright industry will press for more powerful copyright laws in a forlorn attempt to stop billions of people copying digital files hundreds of times a day. Many of those laws will be passed – the copyright industry has very good lobbyists. But people won’t stop copying files, because sharing things is how the online sphere works. As a result, the tension between copyright and the Internet will grow. The problems that will cause may even mean that people start to appreciate how an obscure ancient law affects much of their modern daily lives.
Glyn Moody has been writing about copyright, digital rights, and the Internet for 30 years. He is the author of the new book Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor. It may be downloaded free of charge as an ebook from the site walledculture.org, or bought as a traditional book from online bookstores.