Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The ethical nature of copyright – Graham Cornish, Copyright Circle

Graham gave us a sound introduction to copyright. Not being very up on my copyright, I found it really useful, though if you were quite knowledgeable about copyright, this might have seemed a little elementary.

Here is a quick run-through: It is accepted in societies that if someone creates something, it is theirs to keep, sell or give away. If they choose to sell it, they should be compensated for it. This is an ethical arrangement.

Where it becomes a little less clear is with the shift from a physical resource base to a digital one. With a physical resource (e.g. a book), once you’ve purchased it, it is yours to do with as you please – you can keep it, sell it, give it away, etc. In a digital world, though, once you have purchased something, it is possible to transfer it to someone without having to give it up yourself. A mathematical representation of this scenario is:

Physical resource
1-1=0 (gave the book to a friend to read)
0+1=1 (the friend now has the book)
0 (your copy) + 1 (your friend’s copy) = 1 (total number of copies)

Digital resource
1-1=1 (shared the file with a friend)
0+1=1 (the friend now has a file she didn’t have before)
1 (your copy) + 1 (your friend’s copy) = 2 (total number of copies)

With the digital resource, the creator has now effectively been compensated for one copy (yours) but not for the second (your friend’s). One way of ensuring that the creator is compensated for both copies is through licensing. Licensing enables you to pay for the right to use something that you don’t own. That contract will have limitations on it which prevent you from sharing it with a friend. The issue is no longer how do we compensate the creator for the two uses but how many times do we compensate the creator for the reuse of his work. The balance is shifting. At what point is the investment of time, materials, skill and effort on the part of the creator fairly paid for? The third user? The 100th user? And if we can agree this limit, does that mean that the fourth or 101st user doesn’t need to pay? What will the other three or 100 users who are paying think of that arrangement?

So, what is the ethical nature of copyright? It’s ensuring that the creator of something is fairly compensated for their investment and effort and ensuring that the user is not unfairly charged for use. I think this is a very interesting situation. How do we do this? Licensing is an enabler of it but is it the best way of achieving the ideal ethical situation?

I enjoyed Graham’s presentation and learnt a bit about copyright at the same time. Having said that, because the focus of this presentation was of a more theoretical nature, I’m not too sure how I am going to apply this new knowledge at work...more of a learning session for me.

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