Joost Smiers, Professor of Political Science and Research Fellow in the Research Group Arts & Economics at the Utrecht School of the Arts, the Netherlands, together with his colleague Marieke van Schijndel recently published an essay arguing for the abolition of copyright. The original title of the book is “Adieu auteursrecht, vaarwel culturele conglomeraten.” (in English: Goodbye copyright, farewell cultural conglomerates). It expands their views they published in other books and articles of opinion, such as the one published in the Herald of Tribune: “Imagine a world without copyright”
As you might know, I am critical of copyright and patents, for their negative effects on the sharing of knowledge, innovation and ultimately free culture and free speech. So I found it worthwhile to write a little review of their essay and share that with you. Let me print here some conclusions and then refer you to the summary in English.
Smiers and Van Schijndel summarise the main criticisms to copyright (and in part to patents) and courageously argue for the complete abolition of the copyright system. They argue that this should go hand in hand with the introduction of anti-trust legislation to avoid the existence of dominant parties who control important parts of market(s).
Unfortunately Smiers and Van Schijndel don’t take into account the protection the copyright system offers to the knowledge commons by the means of copyleft licensing. Copyleft licenses are used by contributors of many Free Software project and part of the Creative Commons licensed works (under the ShareAlike option) and make use of copyright to allow all users to use and reuse the works under such license, at two conditions: 1) to attribute authorship and 2) to publish derivative works under the same copyleft license. Even if copyright would not exist, software might be freely copied, but access to the source code (of modified versions) would not be guaranteed (as is by most Free Software projects). The need for access to the source code is rising as more and more sofisticated technology is used in the production of knowledge and cultural works. Imagine the editing of a movie if you don’t have access to the footage.
The review can be found on the Free Knowledge wiki. Janneke Adema wrote a summary of the presentation and debate when the book was presented in De Balie, Amsterdam, in June.
Though some people are afraid of loosing their superstars and bestsellers (see for example the reaction to the earlier mentioned IHT article on “Imagine a world without copyright” by a group of people saying: “No copyright? No thanks“, most artists, musicians and authors will agree that to make a living of copyrights is hardly possible for most and it certainly does not stimulate diversity.
Many individuals, not-for-profit organisations, small companies and entrepreneurs are fighting every day to change these systems of copyright and patent. In short I distinguish four main strategies:
1) the complete abolition of copyright and patents
2) the strengthening of the public domain (such as shortening the copyright and patent terms, strenthening the public’s right to quote, parody, bring orphan works to the public domain, …)
3) the strengthening of the knowledge commons, build by communities of user-producers who license their contribution to the commons under a free license and can draw from each ones’ contributions. Free Software is a very successful example, but also certain forms of Creative Commons and other free licensed cultural works. Copyleft (i.e. ShareAlike in Creative Commons) is the way to protect the commons from privatising modified works derived from such free knowledge commons.
4) the strengthening of anti-trust legislation to avoid domination of the marketplace by one or a few big players and instead assure a level playing field where new entrepreneurs can easily enter a particular market. Open Standards are an important technical instrument to strive for such level playing field.
Smiers and Van schijndel clearly argue for the first and fourth strategy. I think that contributes to a critical understanding of these issues, nevertheless we should not forget the other strategies. Especially building a free knowledge commons, as mentioned under point three, proves its usefulness every day, with the great number of works of art, technology, science and education that are already openly published under free licenses.
An interview with Joost Smiers in the Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia, they correctly observe that the book itself is published with the conventional “all rights reserved” clause. We would have expected more liberal conditions for copying and open access publication on the net. Nevertheless, if you can get your hand on one of their books, they are certainly worth reading!