Copyright in a Free (gratis) World – by “Max C.”

I track all of my time on my computer with a utility called RescueTime. Here’s a breakdown of how I interact with the copyrighted online world. For the month of January

The big idea: I’m spending 628% more time on copyrighted content that is being given away than content I’m paying for. Much of it is ad-supported, but much of that ad money never ends up in the pocket of the artist: most content creators on youtube, reddit, 9gag, devour, or blogs never profit off of their creations.

Free needs different protections

Copyright is a way for people to monetize and control their creations. Yet in its current form, copyright law only protects the already wealthy and powerful: corporate intellectual property. Free artists can’t control their creations with copyright. The artists don’t have the resources to monitor and sue those who take copyrighted material. Nor can free artists create protection mechanisms. DRM is only viable as a large corporation with an R&D budget, and even then, DRM is a miserable failure. Right now, free internet artists generally cede all control of their art from the moment they upload it. (In fact, some of the websites they upload to explicitly seize the rights.) These free copyrighted works cost almost nothing to reproduce, and were never intended to be monetized.

Do you really think someone was going to monetize this?

How existing copyright law harms free art

Copyright law doesn’t just fail to protect free art: it actively harms it. A free artist today produces lots of goods that render him vulnerable to copyright infringement. Because a three note sample can lead to a lawsuit of copyright infringement, and even a successful legal defense can take years and cost millions, free artists might err on the side of not producing rather than risk infringing. (Franzia could sue this free artist for this useful infographic, but I doubt it’s really hurting their business.)

Because nothing is being bought or sold, free artists would generally like you to spread their work. The more eyeballs see it, the greater success— a fabulous piece of free art that is never viewed or linked to is pointless and disheartening to the artist. However, existing copyright makes users hesitant to spread or repost potentially copyrighted material for fear of infringement.

Among ad-supported artists like sponsored youtube channels or blip.tv personalities like Day9, it’s not clear small-scale copyright infringement harms them. Downloading Avatar might mean you won’t buy a ticket to see it in the theater, but downloading Day9 might make you a loyal follower and in fact increase the value of his brand. Indeed, Day9 acknowledges and throws shout-outs to those who remix his own copyrighted material.

Why Creative Commons isn’t an easy fix

Seriously guys, your FAQ is 23 pages long. That's way more reading than I'll do to license my forever alone image macro.

Creative Commons was supposed to patch existing copyright law and help out free artists interested in permitting others to redistribute their works. It recognizes that many artists that produce freely available works still would like attribution or recognition— indeed, that is the only payoff! But Creative Commons is tricky for small-time creators, and increases the barriers to entry. Big idea: using Creative Commons is a barrier which chills creation.

Edit: there are lots of reasons why Creative Commons is a barrier or less effective than a legal change in defaults. To name just a few, Creative Commons introduces complications in web design (do you have to attach those symbols every time you place an image anywhere in a website? How do users with direct URLs to an image find out if it’s licensed under Creative Commons?), Creative Commons is hard to understand for most people (copyright law is confusing business), and Creative Commons is particularly tricky with especially important free media, like Wikipedia. (Wikipedia actually requires ceding a lot of author rights to upload)

These problems would be resolved if content defaulted into being available for non-commerical reproduction/use with attribution. In many file types, attribution is not only possible but often automatic via metadata. Producers would no longer need to understand complicated terms of an extra body like Creative Commons. And people that really didn’t care wouldn’t have to lift a finger in order to permit others to edit, remix, and repost their content.

Solution: If the default for internet-published material was attribution and non-commercial use, and corporate creators would have to opt in to greater protections, we’d have a better system for copyright. And we’d have more lolcats. Are you really going to be against this?

PS: this is the most permissible Creative Commons license (Attribution) but in reality, you’re free to not attribute me. I don’t care. And I don’t want other people to have to add these kinds of disclaimers to works they don’t care about. We should force those that want to enforce their copyright fully to opt-in.