There's too much copyright when it threatens democracy

I attended a discussion entitled When is there too much copyright? at the Vancouver Public Library tonight. The room was quite full – there were probably about 80 people in attendance. The copyfighters were by far the majority: I only recall one person arguing for strong copyright from the floor; much of the discussion was criticism aimed at the lone proponent on the three-person panel.

On the one hand, this is unfortunate: there’s not much to be gained by discussing with the converted. This also suggests the degree to which self-selection in the audience limited attendance by those not already acquainted with the issues. On the other hand, the large attendance shows that this is an issue whose time has come.


Cindy pointed out afterwards that I was the only person who drew an explicit connection between copyright and democracy. This is because I have a problem with a debate framed as a negotiation between creators, publishers, and consumers. We are not just consumers; we are co-creators of cultural works. Audiences add value: we both publicize culture (it is the audience that creates the bankable value of a blockbuster) and add meaning to it (e.g. the ritual of the Rocky Horry Picture Show).

But there’s more to it than this: we and our society are the subject of our cultural expression, and that is inherently political. Take the PBS civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. The news footage in that series depicts the people – politicians, police, protesters, victims – who made history in the struggle for civil rights in the United states. But their contribution goes unacknowledged. The copyright holders of the footage are treated as owners; they set the price we must pay to see our history1. As a result, PBS can no longer show or distribute the series because its licenses to the news footage have lapsed, and PBS can’t afford the half-million dollars it would take to renew.

Eyes isn’t alone – art has often been a medium for political expression, from Murphy Brown to Rock & Roll, and it is often the audience that adds the politics2. Democracy is participation: in a very real sense, culture is the realm of democracy between elections. I oppose strong copyright not because I want free music and free movies, but because music, movies, books, newspapers – the lot – are the medium of democracy. Strong copyright tries to enforce the fiction that we are observers, not participants, in our own society.


1 My being Canadian hardly separates me from the joint history of our two countries, or indeed the connections that bind us to the rest of the world. There is no sense in a taxonomy that says the settlement of New France is “our” history but the struggle for racial equality is not.

2 And the value. Although they don’t supply them, meanings like this often pay off for artists or holders of copyright.