A meeting of copyright researchers and activists

I just attended the December 6-10 meeting in Kerala, India of the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG), an international network of copyright researchers and activists. The discussions were intense but cordial. We were all critical of the current state of copyright laws and regulations, which had become so restrictive that the copyright regime was becoming a major obstacle to access to knowledge. This was happening not only in scientific circles, where journals have established monopolistic practices over scientific research articles, but also in schools and universities, where photocopying by students and teachers was being criminalized. In subsequent posts, I will cover some of the ideas discussed in the meeting.

For this post, I want to focus on an interesting point about alternatives to the existing copyright regime. These ranged from Creative Commons, an idea which has been adopted in many parts of the world, free/open source software, to proposals to abolish the copyright system itself because it creates monopolies over cultural expressions. Given the range of proposals, it is easy to imagine how intense the debates were.

I eventually realized that some of the debates could have been avoided.

To see why this was so, consider the construction of a house. We could debate the architectural approach, the placement of rooms, the choice of building materials, etc. etc. In the course of building the house, we need to build scaffoldings. Art as well as science is involved in building a house. Also in building the scaffolding. But the requirements of the scaffolding are different from the requirements of the house itself. The criteria for a good house are different from a good scaffolding. Most important of all, the scaffoldings have to be torn down, when the house is ready to be used.

Some of the alternatives proposed to the copyright system are actually scaffoldings. Others are part of the house itself. Thus it makes no sense to debate whether the house is better than the scaffolding.

Alternatives like compulsory licensing, Creative Commons and the free software version called Gnu Public License (GPL) are often criticized because they will work only under the present copyright system and therefore require their advocates to defend the current system. They therefore find themselves at odds with more radical proponents who want to abolish the copyright system itself and replace it with another which does not create monopolies over ideas or their expressions.

But if the two sides realized that they are actually looking at the scaffolding and the house, they will quickly realize that the debate was unnecessary.

Compulsory licensing, Creating Commons, and GPL will reinforce the culture of free copying, sharing and exchange that will eventually lead to the collapse of the current copyright system, giving way to non-monopolistic alternatives to encouraging creative work and rewarding intellectual activity.

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