Does copyright do more to enhance free speech than to stifle it? This question comes into sharp focus every 26 April on World Intellectual Property Day, which aims to “promote discussion of the role of intellectual property in encouraging innovation and creativity”.
This year’s theme is “Creativity: The Next Generation”. Debate around whether copyright encourages or actually hinders creativity has intensified in recent years as laws designed to address offline infringement have struggled to keep up with digital technologies and the internet. Also struggling to keep up are artists, most of whom have seen slower revenue streams due to mass online piracy of their work. Many copyright laws and treaties already exist or are in the works to protect artists and the broader intellectual property industry against digital piracy, but some of their implications for free speech are troubling.
The 1998 US Digital Millenium Copyright Act criminalised the production, distribution and use of tools that can circumvent digital copyright controls. It also limited the liability of internet service companies for their users’ copyright infringing activities if the companies agreed to implement notice and takedown procedures for copyright holders to seek redress.
Circumvention tools can be used for fair use activities that do not infringe copyright, making the criminalisation of tools without regard for intent potentially chilling in its broadness. Copyright holders from the recording and film industries also sometimes abuse notice and action systems by flooding them with bogus claims where fair use is clearly protected. The undue burden this places on service providers can encourage them to over-comply with requests in order to stay on the safe side of copyright laws. Such over-compliance can mean unnecessary censorship. The Centre for Internet and Society documented this to be the case in India, sending flawed takedown requests to seven web companies, six of which over-complied and removed more content than legally required under the country’s Information Technology Act.
Major companies including Google, Twitter and most recently Microsoft issue regular reports showing how many copyright removal requests they receive and comply with. Google received nearly 20 million URL removal requests on its search product alone last month, the majority of which came from copyright owners in the recording and motion picture industries and organisations that represent them. A big company like Google might have the resources to sort legitimate requests from the rest, but many small companies certainly do not.
A recent flurry of intellectual property bills and treaties on both sides of the Atlantic pose further challenges to freedom of expression. The Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act both failed in the US, and the European Parliament rejected the the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in 2012 following global campaigns by internet activists and web companies opposed to their provisions. These bills and treaties have all been put on the backburner but run the risk of flaring up again if legislators move to push them forward a second time. The US bills would create a blacklist of websites accused of providing illegal access to copyrighted content, which could kick off a digital witch hunt from overprotective copyright holders that wish to censor sites even in cases of fair use. ACTA aims to shift the current IPR debate from international fora to secretive backrooms. It would also increase intermediary liability, making websites more responsible for user activity and more likely to restrict users’ online expression.
Important to note is that many people simply don’t understand copyright, causing them to unknowingly break these laws. About half of participants in a recent survey were confused about the legality of uploading and downloading copyrighted materials online. Major prosecutions, including that of a US woman who was fined $1.9 million for illegally downloading 24 songs in 2009, have increased awareness of copyright laws and their sometimes disproportionate consequences. A new Copyright Alert System in the US aims to do the same, relying on ISPs to voluntarily slow down internet speeds for users who regularly pirate copyrighted content.
Legal reforms and public knowledge alone will not stop pirating. Artists who have traditionally relied on rich patrons, governments and organised industries to bring their work to fruition are experimenting with new funding and marketing models to meet online challenges and to take advantage of new opportunities. Small donations from more than 3 million people on the crowdsource funding platform Kickstarter have financed more than 35,000 creative projects, bringing in $500 million in the past four years. Many musicians are also shifting their business focus from singles to concert sales, an experience that cannot yet be replicated online and that many fans are still willing to pay for.
Artists need to eat, and pirates should be punished. But for this to happen, copyright laws and their enforcement should to be just and proportionate and new funding models for creative industries should be pursued. Perhaps next year’s World Intellectual Property Day theme should focus on reforming copyright laws and exploring new business models to safeguard the next generation’s creativity and freedom of expression.