Tuesday, April 06, 2010
"And a man is very little moved by the thought that in the year 2000 or 2100 somebody who claims through him will employ more shepherds than Prince Esterhazy, and will have the finest house and gallery of pictures at Victoria or Sydney.
"Now, this is the sort of boon which my hon. and learned Friend holds out to authors, Considered as a boon to them, it is a mere nullity; but, considered as an impost on the public, it is no nullity, but a very serious and fatal reality; I will take an example. Dr. Johnson died fifty-six years ago. If the law were what my hon. and learned Friend wishes to make it, somebody would now have the monopoly of Dr. Johnson's works. Who that somebody would be, it is impossible to say, but we may venture to guess. I guess, then, that it would have been some bookseller, who was the assign of another bookseller, who was the grandson of a third bookseller, who had bought the copyright from Black Frank, the Doctor's servant, in 1785 or 1786.
"Now, would the knowledge, that this copyright would exist in 1841, have been a source of gratification to Johnson? Would it have stimulated his exertions? Would it have once drawn him out of his bed before noon? Would it have once cheered him under a fit of the spleen? Would it have induced him to give us one more allegory, one more life of a poet, one more imitation of Juvenal? I firmly believe not. I firmly believe that a hundred years ago, when he was writing our debates for the Gentleman's Magazine, he would very much rather have had twopence to buy a plate of shin of beef at a cook's shop underground. Considered as a reward to him, the difference between a twenty years' term, and a sixty years' term of posthumous copyright, would have been nothing or next to nothing.
"But is the difference nothing to us? I can buy Rassselas for sixpence; I might have had to give five shillings for it. I can buy the Dictionary—the entire genuine Dictionary—for two guineas, perhaps for less; I might have had to give five or six guineas for it. Do I grudge this to a man like Dr. Johnson? Not at all. Show me that the prospect of this boon roused him to any vigorous effort, or sustained his spirits under depressing circumstances, and I am quite willing to pay the price of such an object, heavy as that price is. But what I do complain of is that my circumstances are to be worse, and Johnson's none the better, that I am to give five pounds for what to him was not worth a farthing.
"The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. In order to give such a bounty, I willingly submit even to this severe and burdensome tax. Nay, I am ready to increase the tax if it can be shown that by so doing I should proportion ably increase the bounty. My complaint is, that my hon. and learned Friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely any perceptible addition to the bounty."
Plus ça change...
 The core proposal in this bill was the raising of the length of copyright from 28 to 60 years. In the EU, the term is currently "Life + 70 years" or "Creation +70 years." In the US it's "Life +70" or the shorter of "Publication +95/Creation +120."
Posted by Auntie Em at 1:02 PM
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Poor, long suffering Simon Hughes has got another letter from me (via the excellent http://www.writetothem.com). With footnotes. Sorry Simon, I am an academic after all...
Dear Simon Hughes,
First of all I would like to thank you for your continued hard work on behalf of your constituents. I would also like to express my sincere hope that you will request a debate of the Digital Economy Bill when it comes before the commons, rather than letting it go through in the wash-up.
The internet has become an essential tool for the majority British people, and society and the economy has benefited from this. The bill as it stands is deeply flawed, and will have a damaging effect on innovation, business, and people's ability to take part in civil society.
To take one example, many local businesses are at grave risk if this bill goes though. The cafes that offer free wifi on Bermondsey Street will suffer. Unlike large chains, who can afford to outsource their internet services to a large ISP, these cafes will face disconnection if a single customer is alleged to have misused their internet connection.
The small businesses that are the lifeblood of the area could find themselves without internet access, and with no recourse to an appeal, on the basis of a handful of (untested) allegations of copyright infringement. This would effectively put them out of business.
The bill is flawed in a number of ways, including, but not limited to, the following.
The bill assumes that the "bad guys" are easily traced, because there is one user to each internet connection which, if you consider the shared networks you probably use each day you will realise this is completely naive.
There is no provision for due process. Allegations of wrong doing need not be proven and the user will have no right of appeal. Web connections can be used without the owner's knowledge .
I also understand that there is an amendment to enable sites hosting copyright material to be taken down. This is a dreadful which emulates the DMCA in the US. The DCMA has had a chilling effect on the fair use of copyright material for the purposes of comment or criticism.
Secondly, just because a domain carries infringing material, it does not necessarily mean that the domain owner is the infringer. Websites are sometimes compromised. A recent BBC survey found that many UK university sites were, without the universities' knowledge, hosting sites that sell prescription drugs .
I am not excusing the infringement of intellectual property rights. As both an academic computer scientist and a freelance journalist I am aware of the need for creators of works of the mind to protect their livelihood. But there are existing avenues for redress when infringement takes place and this bill is an attempt to shift the costs of enforcement onto ISPs and individuals. At the same time it risks creating an unjust and unworkable set of laws that stifle small business, innovation, and participation in civil society.
I do hope you will press for a debate. The future of British competitiveness in the digital realm depends on it.
I'll let you know when he gets back to me - he's usually pretty quick. But then he, notoriously, works very hard.