Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars: More Than You Ever Realized You Wanted to Know

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Power of © (Image: Oxford University Press)The Power of © (Image: Oxford University Press)

The Power of © (Image: Oxford University Press)

I recently received a copy of Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars from the publisher (Oxford University Press) to review. At the time, I had no idea what was in store for me. I thought, “Oh, copyright. That’s an interesting subject, something I know more about than the average United States-ian, but not by much.” It turned out that I was in for an enjoyable lesson in history, business, politics and social relationships.

Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars is written by William Patry, who is Senior Copyright Counsel at Google. Previously, he was copyright counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, a Policy Planning Advisor to the Register of Copyrights and has held other positions in the legal profession.

Copyright is obviously a big issue today, with the internet making it easy for people to get just about anything at any time, if you just know where to look. There are people and organizations on all sides of this issue, and Patry helps us navigate through it.

When reading the book, I realized just five pages into the introduction that it is so meaty and wise that I couldn’t imagine what was to come. The introduction lays the groundwork for Patry’s points very well, and it is a very strong start to the book. Do not skip reading the introduction.

I originally thought that the book would be filled with mere opinions on copyright, but Patry backs up his words with plenty of evidence and common sense. He seems to feel that copyright should serve the greater good, not necessarily serve the holders of copyright. Having this protection available encourages more things to be created, though, thus enriching all of our lives. But having too much copyright protection can restrict this life enrichment. So finding a happy medium for copyright protection can increase the public good. Patry makes this point several times, and it’s a perspective that I had never considered before. Throughout the book, he details the history of copyright, discusses the metaphors surrounding it, talks about what copyright is and what he thinks it should be.

Patry says the only relevant question when talking about copyright law is, “Will the proposal actually serve the public good by promoting learning?” (p. xviii)

Since 1998 and also with Napster in 1999, we’re in the middle of another copyright war. Patry details a lesson out of this war. If you hold on too tight to your copyrighted property, you’ll lose your customers. They will go find entertainment elsewhere, where the consumer is more valued. More laws don’t necessarily get you more money. Companies want to keep control over uses of their works, but these days, more control doesn’t equal more money. Keeping customers happy equals more money. “Without consumers, copyrights and content have no economic value.” (p. xx) This is true!

He believes our current view of copyright creates an upside down business model. Over time, copyright holders (and those who think they benefit from suppressing new technology) have fought against things like the phonograph, talking movies, radio, television, photocopy machines, the VCR, digital music storage and the internet, among others. They used severe terms to describe how the new technologies would be the end of our way of life as we know it. But in reality, the copyright holders end up benefiting from increased distribution. But in the meantime, these people are treating those on the other side of the war as the enemy. Innovation is inevitable, but rather than embrace new markets, companies instead choose to litigate.

The control companies want to have over the internet is impossible. There are just too many people and too many ways to get what you are looking for. Companies that have found innovative ways to generate income have been the ones who have succeeded or remained successful.

In this book which has 200 pages of regular text, there are also 50 pages of notes. In my opinion, this is an excellent but rare ratio of documentation! Also, there are 14 pages of a thorough index.

Every page is so dense with wisdom and information that if you were to take notes, you’d probably just copy out the whole book. This book would appeal to copyright geeks, history buffs, business people and anyone interested in a fascinating and complex topic such as copyright. The price is about what you would expect for a brand new hardback book. It retails for $29.95 but is cheaper online.

“The first step in copyright recovery is honesty about where we are and how we got there. The role of this book is to provide that first step. It is up to the policy makers to take the next step.” (p. xxiv)

Wired: Fascinating lesson on copyright, including history and what it means today, written by a scholar on the subject. This may just change how you think about intellectual property.

Tired: The conclusion was shorter than I was expecting, and didn’t pack a punch.

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