Copyright and the open exchange of information

Freedom to express ideas

In the US and around the world, there are an increasing amount of laws, regulations, and mechanisms which restrict a persons ability to access and distribute information. While the entities that control the information would promote these restrictions as necessary and good, some of these restrictions are potentially harmful and should demand reconsideration.

Freedom with the exchange of knowledge an important feature of a fair and advancing society. It allows people to share ideas and learn from others. Freedom of information helps with the advancement of art, science and medicine, by allowing people to build from others work.

This article focuses solely on Copyright, as the original version did in 2006. The topic remains very relevant today, especially as the copyright of Mickey Mouse is (again) set to expire in 2024.

The purpose of a copyright as stated in the US Constitution, was “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”.

While some have viewed copyrights to be at opposition with the free exchange of knowledge, the key purpose of copyright law is shared with the effect of information freedom: to promote the advancement of society.

There must be a balance between any exclusive information rights, and the eventual free exchange of the knowledge. If the duration of the exclusive information rights is too long, this will encourage suppression and information hoarding which would stifle advancement, and free expression.

Hereditary Privilege, …, again

Originally, the US copyright was 14 years, which could be extended to 28 years if the author was alive. The founding fathers wanted to prevent a system of hereditary privilege where the printing guilds in Europe controlled publishing and use of works of all authors, dead or alive, for 137 years. Unfortunately, after several copyright extensions, we are now have a close equivalent of the medieval Stationers’ Company, which controlled the English copyrights, only now the controlling Companies now are American media companies, which currently control publishing for 120 years.

Thomas Jefferson on exclusive information rights

Originally, Thomas Jefferson was against information monopolies, stating that “the benefit of even limited monopolies is too doubtful, to be opposed to that of their general suppression.”, but later agreed to allow exclusive rights, but only for a limited time, writing to Madison “the following alterations and additions would have pleased me: Article 9. Monopolies may be allowed to persons for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term not exceeding years, but for no longer term, and no other purpose.”

The obvious problems with current copyright law are:

Hypocrisy about Public Domain

Big media companies often benefit from public domain material, then are motivated to never release anything, including public domain derivatives into the public domain. The biggest example is Disney.


Sleeping Beauty

Natural Reaction, Licenced Openness

Governments seem to have forgotten why reasonable limits on granted information monopolies are important, and the “owners” of the information monopolies have shown that they can sway governments to impose endless extensions on any limits. This situation leaves many people frustrated by the constraints and desiring a more open exchange of ideas. In general, the way to increase the open exchange of ideas under current law, is for authors, scientists and artists specify copyright terms which are designed to encourage more reasonably openness. The biggest example of such open terms today is with “Open Source” or “Free Software”. In the case of Open Software, the software copyright terms are such that the work and its derivatives are open for use, derivation, and duplication. While other open copyright terms are possible, such as self limiting the copyright term, the “Open Source”/“Open Content” model has proved successful and is being applied to other industries as well, with the general term “Creative Commons”.

Openness key to Science

A critical part of science is making the details of research publicly available. This permits other researchers to review and verify the results, as well as allowing building from one another's research. If an “Engineer” makes discoveries, but by contract, the designs, source and algorithms of the discoveries are kept secret indefinitely (forever), this work could in no way be considered “Science”. Secret discoveries are not science.

Software Copyrights

No copyright on software has ever expired, even though software often becomes obsolete in 5-10 years. And even if a software copyright did expire, in the current common binary only distribution, this would be of little use to anyone. For software to be truly useful to others, the source should be made available in time.

It is very obvious that the existing information laws no longer have the public in mind. Overly restrictive copyright and patent laws can restrain progress in many areas of society, including science, education, and medicine. To help the promote advancement in these areas, re-examine copyright and patent laws with public advancement in mind.

Don Mahurin - 2006, 2022