Friday, December 21, 2007

What Do People Actually Think Copyright Is?

In all the debates about file sharing it is sometimes assumed that people have a defined sense of what copyright is and are acting in violation of that definition; or, at least in violation of the שבע מצוות בני נח, the seven Noahide laws. To test these assumptions, in the summer of 2006, Karl Fogel of Chicago took a camera around and asked people a series of questions about copyright. The resulting (edited) 10 minute video may be seen here. It starts out a bit slow with the opening question, but then it picks up.

Mr. Fogel details his findings on his website:

In order to document the public perception of copyright today, we went around Chicago with a video camera over two days in the summer of 2006, asking strangers what they think copyright is for, how it got started, how they feel about filesharing, and for any other thoughts they have on copyright. We didn't tell the interviewees about this website or the nature of our project until after each interview was over. The points that show up consistently are: Most people felt that copyright is mainly about credit, that is, about preventing plagiarism. Everyone was on the artist's side — everyone wants to feel that they're treating the artists right. Over and over again, we heard the sentiment that when someone goes to a concert they'll buy the CD "to support the band", even if they already have all those songs on their computer already. Many people felt that copyright was about giving creators the means to make a living, but that in recent times it's been abused and corrupted by corporate interests. No one — not even the interviewee who had just read a book on copyright — knew where copyright comes from. Most people had the feeling it had been around for a while, though estimates varied widely on how long. One interviewee knew of the Constitutional clause that is the legal basis for copyright in the United States, but wasn't familiar with the history leading up to that clause.
People were ambivalent about filesharing. They don't feel like it hurts anyone, except perhaps the music distributors, but they still feel some residual guilt about it anyway.
One senses strong internal conflict here supporting the labels' assumption about filesharing: interviewees expressed a desire to be on artists' side, but rationalized file sharing because it is believed to only hurt the labels: hence the residual guilt. Whether file sharing in fact does result in systemic harm is, of course, contested as seen in the recent Canadian reports finding it doesn't.


Anonymous said...

Thanks as always for another interesting link.

I think that John Tehranian's article "Infringement Nation: Copyright Reform and the Law/Norm Gap" is an interesting companion piece to this video. It is pending publication in the University of Utah Law Review, but is available here:

As the introduction for a forthcoming symposium issue of the Utah Law Review on Fixing Copyright, this Article focuses on the issue of copyright reform with a particular eye towards identification and analysis of the wide law/norm gap that exists in the field. The 1976 Copyright Act inextricably mediates our relationship with cyberspace and new media. Yet three decades have passed since the Act went into effect, and without dispute, tremendous economic, technological, and social changes have occurred in that time. Although these changes do necessarily dictate wholesale revision of the law, we have certainly reached an appropriate point to evaluate the efficacy of the extant Act and think holistically about the issue of reform.

At this juncture, three key trends bear close observation. First, copyright law is increasingly relevant to the daily life of the average American. Second, this growing pertinence has precipitated a heightened public consciousness over copyright issues. Finally, these two facts have magnified the vast disparity between copyright law and copyright norms. We are, in short, a nation of copyright infringers. In the twenty-first century, the average American violates copyright law with spectacular gusto on a daily basis without batting an eyelid. As surveillance technology grows more sophisticated, thereby allowing acts of infringement increasingly to come under the detection and enforcement power of copyright holders, we will be forced to confront the law/norm gap. In response, we have already begun to reexamine our norms. It is also incumbent upon us to reexamine the vitality of our copyright regime - a regime that presently threatens to make criminals of us all.

Bryan O'Sullivan said...

Thank you for pointing out Karl's fine work. It's worth noting that he has a site devoted to copyright reform,

Anonymous said...

Although the man-on-the street may feel "guilty" about downloading music without paying for it, that doesn't keep him from doing it.

Tehranian's article identifies the problem and quantifies some of its impact, but he does not take the next step. Siva Vaidhyanathan published a short book in 2004 (which is only slightly out-of-date now) called "The Anarchist in the Library." His premise is that anarchy and unlawful civil disobedience is the natural reaction of a democratic society when the ruling oligarchy attempts to impose controls which are unacceptably restrictive.

Mr. Vaidhyanathan does not suggest that anarchy is the end goal of copyright reformers, just that widespread electronic infringement is the only remaining way to demonstrate the widespread public dissatisfaction with the current system.