Monday, October 24, 2011

Fair Use a Felony?

There is currently a Senate Bill on the floor of the Senate, Bill S.978, that would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted material for the purpose of "commercial advantage of personal financial gain" a felony.  This is of course ridiculously dumb. Everything is under copyright these days. Copyright is what "designers" use to keep the cheaper products they sold overseas out of the country, to keep their domestic profits high. So pretty much no one can show up in a stream, cause unless they are naked in front of a green screen, there is probably going to be something under copyright in the shot.

But there are some larger issues. They include demarcating who is a journalist and who is not, protecting parody and satire, the wide scale potential for abuse, and just preserving our history.

I've seen many regular video authors who discuss what's going on in the some or all of the world. They frequently do this with the help of clips or snippets of copyrighted materials. Right now these people have not had to stand up and wrap them selves in the formal trappings of being a journalist, but threaten them with losing their right to vote and they will. In this it could really backfire because ultimately uses now that do not get protected as fair use will end up protected under journalistic freedom. Or the digital word of mouth that these people provide will dry up, which will hurt people. And the loss of discourse if one person with something meaningful to say is silenced, is really more of a cost then just about any cost to the copyright holders.

Parody and Satire, are a huge part of our culture. Shows like the Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live and The daily show are institutions in our culture, and they all stream, and they all use clips of copy written material. And in addition to these voices there are many minor sources of satire and parody out there. And not all the the butts of the jokes appreciate it. Right now it's more trouble then it's worth to harass these people, but when the cost of losing the fight goes up for the satirists,  Intimidation becomes a viable tool to silence these voices.

And ultimately this has huge potential for abuse. When most streamed content contains some things that are under copyright, and most politicians stream content. In one fell swoop an authoritarian regime could round up the opposition. As a tool for intimidation this would have a power for those who can afford to use it. It may not be abused at first, but I think it's too dangerous a weapon for abuse to allow to sit.

Finally what happens when someone captures some historic event like a disaster or accident, but has something under copyright, like a song or clothing or something. Do we want to lose these witnesses to our history?

Ultimately copyright is a trade between creators and society, that is intended to benefit both. When one side of equation isn't benefiting from the social contract anymore then contract has no point.

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