Copyright Law & Morality

One of the professors in my program of information and library science openly admitted to his students that he pirates books. I’m not sure how I should feel about this. On the one hand, copyright laws are laws, and as law-abiding citizens, we don’t get a wide margin to decide which laws we follow and which we don’t. On the other hand, we naturally have opinions about which laws are reasonable and should be followed, even absent penalties, and which ones are more justifiable in breaking, even in the face of threatened punishments.

It follows that in which of these two categories one puts copyright laws depends on one’s relation to books. As a writer, agent, publisher, or someone involved in the production of books, one sees copyright as a formalization of the moral right for authors/other production workers to make money from their work. As a reader or consumer of books, one may think that copyright laws, or at least copyright laws as they now stand in the US, are a gross distortion of the values put on public access and societal benefit vs. the encouragement of creative works. Moreover, one may see this strong swing in favor of the copyright holders coming about not by societal consensus, but rather as a result of  intense lobbying on the part of large, steely-eye, deep-pocket corporations.

I am not taking either party’s sides (although to be sure, I am much more a consumer than producer of copyrighted works). Instead, I want to make the case that copyright holders and the large organizations that represent them want to care about the the public thinks of their causes and actions, and not just what judges deciding on their lawsuits hand down in judgement.

This is because law enforcement is not going to be 100% everywhere, every time. Moreover, unlike, say violent crimes, for which most people a) do not derive a benefit, and b) simply cannot bring themselves to do, respecting copyright laws in this technology-savvy world in which we live means actively restraining ourselves from doing what is imminently doable and that from which we get immediate gratification. As such, copyright holders and their representatives need to exert some kind of moral persuasion over the citizens of the republic.

As far as I can tell, organizations like the Authors Guild have done this by championing the single-sided argument that copyright is a God-given right for authors to benefit from their works and no other value can be admitted against which to balance this unconditional moral authority of authors. Moreover, they have relied heavily on bringing lawsuits arguing infringement on copyright laws in order to secure benefits for their constituents. I’m not sure this is the way to go.

Whatever the letters of the law say, I’m not sure that seeing the Authors Guild aggressively go after a public-minded organization like Hathi Trust strengthens the idea in the public’s mind that one needs to respect copyright laws. I’m not sure that pressing one’s rights based on laws — laws arguably brought about by special interest groups — as hard as possible, against groups that are easiest to target, all the while claiming absolute moral sanctimony is the best way to further one’s cause.  I’m not sure that such efforts may not actually have the opposite effect and cause people to have less of a moral twinge when they violate copyright laws. In short, I’m not sure that this isn’t the way to a Pyrrhic victory. (A lot of the dispute between Hathi Trust and the Authors Guild stems from orphan works, but these works are still protected by copyright laws only due to the most recent extension of copyright laws in 1992 and 1998 to lengthen the period of protection for a work to 95 years and to do away with the need to actively renew one’s copyright.)

PS. Speaking of copyrights, do you know who owns the copyright to your WordPress blogs? What is your property and what is WordPress’s?

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One Response to Copyright Law & Morality

  1. teasandbooks says:

    The TA (teaching assistant) for one of my classes had also, without prompt, admitted to a lecture hall full of people that he “loves piracy”. Loves it, done it, got caught doing it, and I assume still doing it now. I wonder if this is the equivalent of legal jurists smoking a little MJ on the side. Long live our permissive Open Society!

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