We Are All Copyright Owners

NOTE:  Apologies in advance for the American-centric post, but what follows can only universally apply in the context of U.S. copyright law.

Certain prominent figures making proposals for more limited copyright protections like to repeat the slogan, “We are all authors/creators now,” meaning now that we have the Internet and social applications designed to facilitate easy sharing of all sorts of content. What these folks neglect to mention is that we were all creators long before the Internet, which also means that we were all also copyright owners — and still are.  And just because most of us will never need or want to enforce copyrights, that doesn’t mean we should be fooled into passively abdicating the right just to make life easier for Internet companies.  One of the ironies I find intriguing about this subject is that so-called copyright reformers will argue that in the digital age, the general public needs to worry less about copyright, while I say the Internet is the reason everyday citizens ought to worry more about copyrights than they ever have. It doesn’t seem rational that in a time when our personal photographs, for instance, migrate from shoeboxes to global, shared networks that this the moment to suddenly care less about what might happen to these assets.

In the kerfuffle over the role of copyrights in the relationship between creators of works and consumers of works, the right itself is too often portrayed as a privilege enjoyed solely by creators. Somewhere in the conversation, we forget that nearly all citizens of the U.S. are copyright owners because the right applies universally and automatically to everyone who owns personal writings, photographs, videos, etc., regardless of the amateur status of these works.  But, if the corporate-interest “reformers” can count on Americans to forget or not care that they are copyright owners, then perhaps Americans won’t notice what would be lost by acting on a proposal to make copyright registration mandatory.  It might seem wise or efficient to suggest that those who consider their works commercially or socially valuable (we’ll call them artists) should be required to declare a desire not to have their works used without permission via a registration and fee process with the Copyright Office.  But if this reform were to become law, it would instantly strip copyright from every citizen who will certainly never bother to register his/her personal, amateur works, and it would strip the right at exactly the time in history when it might actually matter to the average citizen.

Ten years ago, we weren’t uploading images of ourselves, our kids, etc. into a computer network where anyone can duplicate, manipulate, and redistribute them at will.  Granted, if some unknown troll takes one of my personal photos off Facebook, monkeys with it, and redistributes it, copyright doesn’t afford me much protection because the troll is anonymous. But suppose my friends, a Jewish white couple who’ve adopted two children from Africa, post a casual, family snapshot for us to enjoy, and the Society for the Preservation of American Christianity and Whiteness uses their portrait to produce an advertisement calling biracial, Jewish families an “abomination?”  Or maybe Sarah Palin’s political operatives decide my daughter’s picture suits one of their core messages; and instead of civilly suing her organization for copyright infringement, I have to find said political operative and beat the snot out of him.  Personally, I think it’s better to leave intact the civil remedies available, imperfect as they may be.

Remedies aside, though, the most significant loss that might be felt in years to come is the social norm of respect as something of a byproduct of universal copyright, even if that had nothing to do with the intent of the constitutional clause.  On the broadest level, we simply do not erase the rights we have on the grounds that we rarely need to enforce them.  It is narrow-minded (and usually profit-motivated) for someone to suggest that we ever should view any right this way.  For instance, the right not to be discriminated against for race, religion, sexual orientation is codified into law and applies universally, regardless of how frequently or not this right needs to be enforced.  Would we create a system in which, for instance, a gay person should officially register his desire not to be discriminated against, thereby implying that discrimination is okay absent said registration?  Or is it more civilized to say that discrimination is socially intolerable and therefore illegal?

Perhaps most importantly, it is essential that people realize that the American public gains nothing by giving up automatic and universally applied copyright while the rationale for mandatory registration best serves the interests of a handful of Internet companies.  These businesses want to digitize, organize, synthesize, and monetize every bit of data they can without the expense and hassle of dealing with pesky things like the rights of users who share data and content in exchange for the “free” applications being used.  As such, many reforms proposed by academics and Internet activists are insidiously designed to get the public to slowly and voluntarily give up rights (e.g. privacy) that impede what they often call the “free flow of information.”  This is jargon, that translates to mean “what’s yours is ours.”  Mandatory registration of copyrights would instantly disenfranchise nearly all Americans from a right they’ve enjoyed since 1978. Personally, I don’t think we should cede that ground too casually.

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