So a few days ago I mentioned that I saw copyright less as a matter of moral prerogative, and more like a bargain with society.
A few days ago, there was a discussion on RWA’s PAN loop about Bookshare. For those of you who don’t know, Bookshare is an organization that scans in books, performs optical character recognition, and produces a computer-generated reading of the text of the book. There are two additional pieces of information you need to know. First, Bookshare gives away the computer-generated reading–for free–without royalties to the author. Second, it only gives away that reading to people who are either legally blind, or who have some other documented disability.
Upon discovering Bookshare, someone on the loop was upset. Her take was that even though the service was offered for blind people, Bookshare was copyright infringement. And while she might be willing to grant the right to reproduce her book to benefit the disabled, nobody had asked her. I don’t want to blame that author or others who agreed with her; I think that response is perfectly understandable.
I don’t share it, though–and it’s precisely because I don’t think of copyright as my prerogative, but instead, as a bargain with society. Copyright–the granting thereof, and the enforcement thereof–is expensive. It costs society money. The copyright office uses taxpayer dollars. The courts use even more taxpayer dollars. It costs society in the form of legislation enacted to help prevent copyright infringement (for instance the Digital Millenium Copyright Act), which may lead to over-enforcement in some cases. So why should society spend all that money, time, and effort?
The answer is, because it gets something back in return. In return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, after the time is over, society owns my work–I don’t. (I’ll be dead then, but hey.) In return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, society gets the right to make fair use of my work–to parody my work or to quote selected portions for review and criticism or just for fun.
Also, it turns out that in return for recognizing my copyright for a limited time, if I publish my work, society gets the right to make copies available to the blind. For free. Without paying me a dime or asking for permission. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
If you think about this law, it makes sense. It takes a lot of effort to transform a print book into a blind-accessible copy, and the market for such items is both very, very small, and not particularly wealthy. If they couldn’t make copies for free, and provide those copies through volunteer work, blind people would have an extremely tiny reading library. Almost none of those books would be romance novels. Blind people would either have to choose between not reading, a truly horrible option, or looking for books they could read in violation of copyright. In my mind, Congress’s decision to allow these people an option to read widely, without violating copyright law, engenders respect for an author’s copyright and for the rule of law generally. Good laws don’t make people want to break them.
But it only makes sense if you see copyright as an author’s bargain with society, not as a matter of an author’s inalienable right.