You don't need to be a copyright lawyer to get the basic idea: U.S. Copyright laws begin with the premise that neither the creator of a new work nor the general public ought to be able to appropriate all the benefits that flow from the creation of a new work. If creators can't make some money off of their creations, they have no incentive to create. If distributors can't earn some money from the works they distribute, they may not bother to distribute.
But all creators -- authors, musicians, artists, individuals -- borrow raw material to build their works. Novelists, sculptors and programmers, Litman points out, incorporate ideas, language, code, building blocks and expressive details they first encountered elsewhere.
If creators were given control over every element and use of everything they made, there would be no raw material left for others. The threat of legal action and liability would enter the creative process at every level. The flow of ideas could decrease or even dry up, caught in legal struggles and bounded by economic and other costs. The idea of American copyright was to give authors enough protection so they would keep cranking out new ideas, but limit that protection so that the flow of ideas would be enhanced. In terms of the vigorous movement of ideas and opinions, the idea worked well for more than two centuries.
Thus, writes Litman in Digital Copyright, "both as a matter of fairness and as a matter of promoting learning by encouraging authors to create works and the public to consume them, copyright has always divided up the possible rights in and uses of a work, and given control over some of those rights to the creators and distributors and fix others to the general public."
It is precisely this principle that corporate lobbyists destroyed when they got Congress to pass new kinds of copyright laws specifically in response to the growth of the Net and the complex challenges to existing intellectual property conventions that it posed. Because of the pinpoint precision of software data tracking and collection, these new laws theoretically require everyone to pay for every bit of every creative work they access, use or transmit. As the Napster flap demonstrates, the end result is that corporations benefit -- not artists, whose access to ideas is severely limited, or the general public, which now has no legal right to freely control or distribute any part of the creative works they access.
Corporate lobbyists made it a federal crime to transmit any part of a copyrighted work. In addition, the DMCA held site operators liable for all the damages incurred if any part of copyrighted works were transmitted over their sites.
As a matter of policy, Litman writes, these shifts in copyright law have "horrific" implications.
Setting the basic "compensable" unit of copyright (which is also the basic infringing unit) at the level of the (ephemeral) copy in volatile memory of your desktop computer involves the fundamental operation of computers in copyright on what is essentially an "atomic" level. (Most of you reading this know this, but in case some don't -) And since a computer works by reproducing data in its volatile Random Access Memory -- RAM -- so anything that exists in volatile memory could theoretically be saved to disk -- the appearance of any portion of a work in any computer's RAM is a reproduction within the meaning of federal copyright law.)
"It means," Litman writes, "that all appearance of works in computers -- at home, on networks, at work, in the library -- needs to be effected in conformance with, and with attention to, copyright rules. That's new. Until now, copyright has regulated multiplication and distribution of works, but it hasn't regulated consumption."
It does now.
If you buy a book, or even borrow one, you can read it as many times as you like. You can lend it or rent it to a friend, sell it or give it away. You can't legally make copies of it, but you can use it as many times as you want. But if every time a work appears in RAM, you are making an "actionable copy," then for the first time copyright owners have been given almost total control over the consumption of their works. Each time you open Microsoft Word to edit a document, you could eventually need Microsoft's permission. Each time you use your computer's CD-ROM drive to listen to a CD you bought, you need a license from the record company. Every time you view a Web page with a picture of Mickey Mouse, you need permission from Disney.
That is the direction in which laws like the DMCA are taking us, Litman says, and it's not accidental. That's the agenda of corporate copyright lawyers, who are largely unopposed in Congress or Washington. Hackers and other digital enthusiasts have long viewed cyberspace as unpoliceable and governable -- too big, individualistic and complex. Corporate lobbyists disagree: They see the Net as a potentially lucrative colony, over which incalculable amounts of copyrighted information can eventually be distributed at enormous profit. And they've taken signficant steps to conquer it.
When Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, cyber-liberties organizations were in an uproar. But few groups online paid much attention to the intense lobbying underway -- mostly out of sight -- involving copyright. The public had no real sense that Congress was passing laws that would put copyright owners in a position to claim exclusive "reading", "listening," and "viewing" rights to copyrighted works.
When copyright laws were initially passed, government was trying to protect individual authors. But most copyrighted material is now distributed by giant media conglomerates. The whole context in which copyright was originally conceived has changed, yet there seems little consciousness of this new reality in Washington or among political parties and interests.
Litman's is one of the best, clearest, most cogently organized and accessible books yet written on the travesty that is the DMCA, which President Clinton blithely signed into law while the Tech Nation dozed. The DMCA is the price a culture pays for ignoring politics, and we'll be paying for this legislation for a long time to come.
Copyright owners' enforcement strategies have mostly been limited to threats, litigation and ham-handed public relations and media campaigns aimed at convincing Americans that they ought to disapprove of unauthorized use. While that strategy can work against a specific target like Napster, or intermediaries like a college or large company (since these large targets have assets to be threatened by litigation), it works far less well in deterring individuals. In fact, says Litman, a variety of new applications (Gnutella, for instance) have popped up to permit individuals to wantonly violate these new laws, and the wave of copyright lawsuits has only encouraged this trend. Napster recently topped 62 million registered users, few of whom believed they were thieves, suggesting the DMCA wasn't a law with much popular support.
Yet eventually, in order to fully enforce the rights that content owners now claim, it will be necessary to go after individual consumers. Noncompliance becoming endemic, even institutionalized, would become the single most important factor in determining the fate and future of copyright. Litman observes that people don't obey laws they don't believe in.
Litman also points out in Digital Copyright that the conflict over the scope of copyright on the Net is being fought in the usual way: "Representatives of private interests are simultaneously jockeying for advantage while offering to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a deal that they find satisfactory. Senators and representatives make general pronouncements about the importance of the issues raised and the need to find the right answer, while assuring the various interests that their doors are open and they would be delighted to broker a negotiated solution."
Litman used to believe that bad copyright law derived from lack of congressional expertise of the issues involved -- especially complete ignorance of the Net and the Web -- or a lack of interest in the details. But she came to a different, more ominous conclusion. "More and more," she writes, "it seems likely that at least many of the legislators who seek to promote inter-industry consensus are hoping to score a substantial portion of the money being poured into copyright lobbying."
Litman's book is bleak. The only ray of hope she sees is consumers' widespread noncompliance. She points out that the battle is lopsided, to say the least. Individuals and individual rights have few lobbyists in Washington.
Look for Michael's take on this book soon as well.