Published on October 5th, 2014 | by ryankapsar3
Policy and Games: What is Copyright?
Policy and Games is a look at tech policy and the gaming world. The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of KBMOD or any of its contributors.
I think to understand the big deal about copyright we need to start with a common understanding of what copyright is. Copyright is a limited time monopoly on a property enforced by the government. However, it is not an everlasting, all encompassing monopoly. You are able to (at least in the US) make use of copyrighted material if you transform the work in some manner. It technically isn’t property as in physical property. It is something that a person or organization owns, but only exists because the government says that it does.
Creating a safe haven for ideas isn’t new. It was written into our constitution but Queen Anne of the United Kingdom first formalized a statute in 1710 based on an act from 1662 creating the first legislatively approved copyright. The original length was set to 2 years, but by Queen Anne’s time this was increased to 14 years. In the US constitution it was originally set to 14 years with a possible extension to 28 years, but initially that was rarely applied.
Copyright was originally intended to protect authors from the printing press as once something was printed it could be easily copied and reprinted (it also was used to protect musicians in similar situations). This intitially failed in the US because the US printers were able to freely print any books because many of the colonialists didn’t respect the copyright laws of other countries. They took advantage of these lax laws, but eventually US authors wanted the same protection their British counterparts had enjoyed over a century earlier.
This helped the creative community thrive, but made a lot people angry. With the law enacted in the US it became a regulated industry that had a low barrier to entry, but strongly supported incumbent authors and firms. If you already published something that work became more valuable because you could exclusively control printing and distribution of it. Over time, the rights of copyright holders has expanded dramatically to life of the artist + 70 years or 95 since publication or 120 years from creation for companies. In addition, very harsh fines and, potentially prison time, have been introduced as penalties.
These harsh penalties were put in place had to do with the technology required to make products that violate copyright. To reproduce a record or book, you would have had to have special equipment. For a record, you’d have had to been able to create a mold from the original and then press more records. For books, someone would have had to read the book and used a printing press to copy the material. In both cases they would have had to create distribution channels. Essentially, it was too expensive to create a single copy, so entire organizations would have had to be devoted to creating those products.
However, during the 1980s with the invention of the VHS and Cassette tape, everything changed. Suddenly anyone could copy anything from the radio or TV. This caused a change in the way people could consume content or own content. Since then the technological capabilities of consumers to produce and copy has allowed large numbers of people to do this effortlessly. Which means that organizations that relied on these laws to prevent organizations from selling mass produced copies or even showing their movies without permission, to going after individuals that truly love the material they are copying.
Because of the length of time under copyright, the original intent of Copyright has been turned on its head and now is being used to protect a specific business model without truly acting “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” as the Constitution requires. Instead it has been used to constrain popular culture and enrich a few companies with a government mandated monopoly. In my upcoming articles I plan to discuss how this has impacted various industries focusing primarily on gaming. Anyone that has played a game has likely experienced DRM, which is a topic that directly sprung from copyright. Not to mention the direct impact on the gaming industry in regards to YouTube and Twitch content. I’ll discuss this in great detail to how it effects the Copyright act and corrupts our sense of ownership and fairness. Stay tuned to KBMOD as we get into the very controversial world of copyright and ownership!