copyright = oxygen? Depends on how you understand the analogy!

John Degen blogs about Copyright (and I respond below):

A friend of mine, copyfighter Russell McOrmond, is fond of the analogy that copyright law is like water -- too little of it and we die of thirst; too much of it and we drown. As analogies go, this one is very tidy, but I prefer to think of my copyright as oxygen. For the professional practice of a working writer, copyright is not a too much/too little proposition. It's an either/or. Provided with my oxygen, I get to keep breathing and keep writing. Deprived of it, well...

This is one of the areas we appear to disagree on the surface. It is not only because we work with different types of creativity, but we have observed different threat types. The problem with the copyright maximalist viewpoint (IE: John's interpretation of copyright as oxygen) is that it only works for a single generation of authors. All creativity builds on the past, and the more control the past has over previous creativity, the less ability new creators will have to build upon it.

I'm not simply concerned with my own personal form of creativity, or of those that I meet today, but all creators, future generations of creators, and creators in different countries (given western countries have a bad habit of imposing our views on other countries).

It turns out, however, that John's analogy remains the same as mine. If we have a certain amount of oxygen above us we have a certain pressure exerted on us (Say, 1 atmosphere of pressure) then we live comfortable. If we lower the pressure we will have a hard time breathing (which is why we pressurize aircraft). If we increase the pressure too much we will also have a hard time breathing.

On the extremes of air pressure we have explosion (too little) and implosion (too much), both resulting in our death!

We could also look at this not from a pressure point of view, but from an atmospheric composition point of view. Earth's atmosphere consists principally of a roughly 78:20 ratio of nitrogen and oxygen, plus substantial water vapor (a gas), If we were breathing pure oxygen we would also die, and that is ignoring the flammability problem that could easily burn and kill-off all life on the planet.

This conversation on analogies suggests further that changes to copyright must become more scientific and evidence based, and not based on emotions. I believe John is acting emotionally by being worried about changes in the marketplace that can harm creators in a narrow way, and not looking at the larger healthy ecosystem required for creators to survive. We need to have calmer economists entering into the debate, and not allow the debate to be dominated by the fears of emotional people who have taken various narrow positions.

For examples of what economists are saying, see Nobel prize for economics co-winner Eric Maskin and the paper he co-authored “Intellectual Property on the Internet: What’s Wrong with Conventional Wisdom?” (published in German in Open Source Jahrbuch 2005: Zwischen Softwareentwicklung und Gesellschaftsmodell)

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Interesting dialogue

I'm eagerly awaiting his response to my comment, which seems to have disappeared into the moderation filter. Meanwhile, here it is :

Joe, if more copyright is always better, and exceptions to copyright are always bad, presumably you'd be fine with granting copyright to the first person to write down any given word ?

I think strengthening copyright helps people who have already created works while making it harder for people to create new works. Every writer is influenced by those who have gone before. Does that mean that they should have to pay a royalty to each of those influences ?

What about parodies, reviews, and criticisms of existing works ? You think the author of the original work is likely to grant you a license to parody their work ? or to quote their work in a scathing review ?

This is why Canadian documentary makers have come out against strengthening copyright laws - although they benefit from copyright once their work is completed, it's becoming prohibitively expensive and sometimes impossible to create it in the first place !

While I do want to see creators get paid and continue creating, I think "life plus 50 years" is more than enough time. I wish I was still getting paid for jobs that I did a year ago, yet alone a lifetime plus 50 years ago !

Government-granted monopolies on expression, and that's what copyright is, are a necessary evil for creators. I'm surprised that writers are so keen on letting the government decide who can say what.