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Moral Panics and The Copyright Wars

The Author
Reading William Patry’s latest book Moral Panics and The Copyright Wars, I found myself in the unusual position of finally agreeing with an author on the morality (or better immorality) of our current copyright system. Senior Copyright Patry1Counsel for Google (although he makes it very clear that his views are not necessarily those endorsed by Google) and author of the seven-volume Patry on Copyright treatise, Patry’s Moral Panics serves up a feast of Copyright law in an atypically palatable form, deftly probing the history of Copyright, from its creation as an incentive to produce, to its current charge as a destroyer of new technologies.

The History
Patry explains the original purpose of copyright law was not to grant authors a monopoly. Monopoly was merely an evil byproduct, necessary to promote the greater public good. The quid pro quo is that in exchange for the grant of a limited monopoly in their work, artists and authors will produce more works for the public to enjoy. Any more incentive beyond the bare minimum needed to increase output Patry explains, is an immoral burden on society. The theory worked quite well for hundreds of years, until copyright distributors and lawmakers conspired to bitterly twist the intent of copyright to their own ends.

The Economics
Stripping the law and rhetoric of copyright to its core, Patry reveals the ugly truth behind our present copyright system. Copyright distributors have converted copyright law from an incentive to artists, to a weapon of mass destruction. Behind a continuous blitzkrieg of propaganda, labeling the public as villains and artists as heroes, the industry has successfully kept copyrighted material out of the hands of the public domain for longer and longer periods of time. Bringing lawsuit after lawsuit against the public’s use of ever-emerging technologies, copyright distributors have turned copyright law on its head. What began as a benefit to the public has become a weapon, which not only undermines the incentive to create new works, but which sues new technologies out of existence.

The War
Moral Panics and The Copyright Wars details how, to prevent the public from revolting, copyright distributors overtook the copyright debate, casting themselves as artistic defenders and the public as immoral thieves and pirates. Buttressed by their successes, copyright distributors continue to take ground, pressing for increasingly Draconian laws, denying the public use of decades old works and cutting edge technology, while offering nothing in return.

The Threat of Emerging Technologies
Although the public may see lawsuits against single mothers and grandmothers as the extent of the evil posed by the industry, the greatest threat lies in the attacks on emerging technologies. Passing morally corrupt copyright law after copyright law has made it easier for copyright distributors to sue new technologies. Rather than innovate, or adopt ways to capitalize on new technologies, the industry litigates, driving emerging technologies, like P2P file sharing, toward submission. Patry makes painfully clear, that the present direction of copyright law is neither morally nor economically sustainable. The only question is: How much longer before the public takes back what it rightfully owns.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Patry translates complex concepts into understandable language. Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, this book will change the way you think about the morality of copyright.

Brett Trout

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