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Should copyright be abolished?

Thought you had a handle on the concept of copyright? Think again! Last week there was a post on Slashdot entitled, “Should Copyright Be Abolished?” by Greg Bulmash (full article posted on his blog, “Brainhandles”). I think this discussion has relevance to government documents and libraries in general, since we are steadily moving away from a copyright information world and into a licensing information world. I’m trying to get my head around this shift and so welcome the reading material. The ideas of attribution, distribution, DRM, fair use, licensing, public domain… all feature prominently in this discussion.

Bulmash waded into the copyright debate, taking on those in the tech community that seek to abolish copyright. The gist of Bulmash’s argument was that “you can’t oppose copyright and support open source.” Bulmash opines that the GNU Public License, the license under which much open-source software is distributed (there are several flavors of open source licenses, but I won’t get into that here), depends on copyright to be enforceable. Therefore, you can’t have the GPL without copyright. Bulmash argues for reforming copyright, not abolishing it — “surgery, not euthanasia.”

These members of the anti-copyright crowd cite the GPL (GNU Public License) as an alternative to copyright without any sense of the ironic fact that the GPL can’t exist without copyright. They’re proposing a solution while simultaneously advocating the destruction of the thing that makes their solution workable. While the GPL is less restrictive than other licensing methods, it’s a license and it does impose some restrictions on or conditions for use of the work. It is a method of controlling your work. But without copyright, the GPL could not be enforced.

Bulmash was answered the next day by Karl Fogel of Question Copyright in his essay, “Supporting Open Source While Opposing Copyright.” Fogel makes a very compelling argument that the abolition of copyright doesn’t necessarily go against the spirit of the GPL, nor does the GPL need to rely on copyright in order to forward the cause of open source or free software (two different, but conflated ideas!). He suggested that Bulmash, “mixes up two completely different concepts: the right to be credited for a work, and the right to control distribution of that work.” Fogel goes on to state that copyright is simply the current enforcement tool du jour, but is not a natural and uncontroversial “right.”

The basic argument of copyright abolitionists is that people should be free to share when sharing does not result in any diminution of supply. The GPL simply uses copyright law in a jiujitsu-like manner to enforce this principle, in a legal environment where sharing is prohibited by default and must be explicitly permitted to be legal. All the GPL does is create a space where permission to share is enforced. Take his exercise in imagination all the way: imagine if we had laws that did away with most prohibitions against sharing, but that enforced crediting and permitted authors to enforce GPL-like provisions requiring sharing.


Put bluntly: a future law that merely allows authors to enforce sharing need have little in common with today’s laws that allow the restriction of sharing. Since these two things are more opposite than alike, calling them both “copyright” doesn’t make much sense. But that is what Bulmash does, when he implies that the current copyright regime (or something structurally similar to it) is the only way the GPL could be enforced.

There are some great comments in both threads so if you have the time, brew a pot of tea, sit down and wade through them. You’ll be glad you did because this debate definitely has import to what librarians do!