Framing Copyright Debates

by on October 31, 2005

I’ve got a new article up at Reason about a disingenuous argument that’s often heard in copyright debates: that those who defend the traditional scope of copyright (including principles such as fair use and limited terms) are really just opponents of intellectual property who want to (as Jame DeLong put it a couple of months ago) “abolish intellectual property rights in favor of some mystical commune wherein all IP is free as the air and creators are compensated by government.”

Now obviously there are a few IP anarchists out there who want to do precisely that. But that’s not the position of mainstream copyright industry critics. Rather, they are defenders of America’s copyright traditions, which delimits the rights of copyright holders to ensure that copyright does not smother innovation or impoverish our culture.

These are complicated issues. Products like Google Print and Grokster raise difficult questions about how the law can best ensure that artists and authors are compensated without stifling what are undeniably important technological advances.

But it seems that a lot of people on the other side don’t like dealing with these nuances. So instead, they’d like to frame the debate as being a disagreement over “property.” There’s a “pro-property” side that thinks piracy is bad, and an “anti-property” side that doesn’t think piracy is a big deal, just as in Kelo, there was a pro-property side that wanted to rein in eminent domain abuse and an anti-property side that doesn’t think eminent domain abuse is a big deal.

Efforts like the Grover Norquist’s Property Rights Alliance, which I discuss briefly in my article, are all about convincing people on the libertarian and conservative right that that’s what’s at stake. By putting the RIAA, MPAA, et al side-by-side with anti-Kelo activists, they subtly reinforce the idea that they’re fighting the same battle–that, like the eminent domain debate, it’s an argument between a pro-property right and an anti-property left. As I explain in my article, that’s not what’s at stake, and it’s vital that that framing not be allowed to dominate the copyright debate.

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