Amazon caved on the impending copyfight between the Kindle 2 and the Publishers guild. For those of you who haven’t been following this issue here’s what happened. Amazon packed a whole slew of experimental features into the second version of it’s popular ebook reader. One of these happened to be a text to speech function. The Publishers Guild caught wind of this and began urging it’s members not liscence their work for ebooks until Amazon had disabled the feature. Guild President Roy Blunt Jr. explained the Guild’s stance in the New York Times.
The problem with Blunt’s editorial is that is suffers from the same problem as all editorials about copyright. It is simeoultaneously ridiculous and reasonable.
Reading anything from either side of the copyright feud is like looking at one of those image switching optical illusions. You can flip your perspective just by concentrating on the argument for a second. One minute the idea of audio rights seems ridiculous, the next minute you find yourself coming around to the idea.
The problem is that copyright is an issue that is still in it’s infancy and the evolution of technology is putting it through an awkward adolescence.
We’re used to using physical property as an analogy for intellectual property, but as thousands of copyleft types have pointed out, there are markeded differences between the two. One of the major ones is that IP has only been around for about three to four thousand years. Now this may seem like a long time, but in comparison with physical property this is nothing. Physical property has been around in some form or another since the dawn of mankind, and really perhaps even before that. It’s had time to mature and evolve into the very robust and fairly comprehensive system we have today. Think just for a moment about how complicated property really is. We have methods to define how unclaimed property is claimed, how property can be rented, how property disputes can be solved, how to deal with property that’s alive in terms of pets or livestock, the list goes on and on.
Not surprisingly, some of these rules do carry over into the IP realm quite well. The area of straight copyright infringement is a perfect example. Very few people argue with the basic premise of copyright, that authors deserve to be compensated for their work. Just look at the arguments around clear cut copying like illicit P2P downloads or bootleg movies. Almost no one says, the author doesn’t deserve compensation. Instead all arguments for these activities claim that authors will actually get more compensation (more distrobution = more fans, etc.). Now of course there are debates around whether these rights should be perpetual or expire, but no one disagrees with their basic existence.
However, in one area, this sort of unamity disappears. This is the area of deravative works. Just take a look at this forum thread on the plagirism case revolving around the iconic Obama “Hope” poster. The debate goes back and forth and gets heated in places, although still short of an all out flame war.
Interestingly, this area of the deravative work is the area where our well defined physical property rules really can’t apply. There is no good physical analogy. To create something deravative in the physical world, you must own the original. But in the IP realm, you can own a copy of the content without owning the copyright for the content. Meaning that you can easily product a deravtive work, start distributing it, and giving legal scholars all over very nasty headaches.
Ars Technica has a great article on just why this area of derivative works is going to start becoming more important. It tries to get at to the heart of the quesiton, just what is a deravative work, and when does the original artist have the rights. The article doesn’t have any answers, but it’s a refreshing view point that goes along way to explaining why we have these strange double takes on the issue of copyright, and why the parties in the copyright war remain so polarized to this day.