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Criticism of copyright

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The symbol of Kopimi, an anti-copyright initiative developed by the Piratbyrån, a Swedish organisation actively opposing modern copyright law and practices, and the previous operators of BitTorrent tracker The Pirate Bay, before it was spun off as an independent organisation.

Criticism of copyright, or anti-copyright sentiment, is a dissenting view of the current state of copyright law or copyright as a concept. Critics often discuss philosophical, economical, or social rationales of such laws and the laws' implementations, the benefits of which they claim do not justify the policy's costs to society. They advocate for changing the current system, though different groups have different ideas of what that change should be. Some call for remission of the policies to a previous state—copyright once covered few categories of things and had shorter term limits—or they may seek to expand concepts like fair use that allow permissionless copying. Others seek the abolition of copyright itself.

Opposition to copyright is often a portion of platforms advocating for broader social reform. For example, Lawrence Lessig, a free-culture movement speaker, advocates for loosening copyright law as a means of making sharing information easier or addressing the orphan works issue[1] and the Swedish Pirate Party has advocated for limiting copyright to five year terms.[2]

Economic arguments[edit]

An anti-copyright symbol


There is an argument that copyright is invalid because, unlike physical property, intellectual property is not scarce and is a legal fiction created by the state. The argument claims that, infringing on copyright, unlike theft, does not deprive the victim of the original item.[3][4]

Historical comparison[edit]

It is unclear if copyright laws are economically stimulating for most authors, and it is uncommon for copyright laws to be evaluated based on empirical studies of their impacts.[5][6][7]

Information technology related concerns[edit]

One of the founders of Piratbyrån, Rasmus Fleischer, argues that copyright law simply seems unable to cope with the Internet, and hence is obsolete. He argues that the Internet, and particularly Web 2.0 have brought about the uncertain status of the very idea of "stealing" itself, and that instead business models need to adapt to the reality of the Darknet.[8] He argues that in an attempt to rein in Web 2.0, copyright law in the 21st century is increasingly concerned with criminalising entire technologies, leading to recent attacks on different kinds of search engines, solely because they provide links to files which may be copyrighted. Fleischer points out that Google, while still largely uncontested, operates in a gray zone of copyright (e.g. the business model of Google Books is to display millions of pages of copyrighted and uncopyrighted books as part of a business plan drawing its revenue from advertising).[8] In contrast, others have pointed out that Google Books blocks out large sections of those same books, and they say that does not harm the legitimate interests of rightsholders.[9]

Cultural arguments[edit]

First "Minute Meme" video of QuestionCopyright.org

Freedom of knowledge[edit]

"Free Beer" demonstrator supporting the "freedom of knowledge" idea: "Copyright is preventing access to knowledge" (2007).

Groups such as Hipatia advance anti-copyright arguments in the name of "freedom of knowledge" and argue that knowledge should be "shared in solidarity". Such groups may perceive "freedom of knowledge" as a right, and/or as fundamental in realising the right to education, which is an internationally recognised human right, as well as the right to a free culture and the right to free communication. They argue that current copyright law hinders the realisation of these rights in today's knowledge societies relying on new technological means of communication and see copyright law as preventing or slowing human progress.[10]

Authorship and creativity[edit]

Lawrence Liang, founder of the Alternative Law Forum, argues that current copyright is based on a too narrow definition of "author", which is assumed to be clear and undisputed. Liang observes that the concept of "the author" is assumed to make universal sense across cultures and across time. Instead, Liang argues that the notion of the author as a unique and transcendent being, possessing originality of spirit, was constructed in Europe after the Industrial Revolution, to distinguish the personality of the author from the expanding realm of mass-produced goods. Hence works created by "authors" were deemed original, and merges with the doctrine of property prevalent at the time.[11]

Liang argues that the concept of "author" is tied to the notion of copyright and emerged to define a new social relationship—the way society perceives the ownership of knowledge. The concept of "author" thus naturalised a particular process of knowledge production where the emphasis on individual contribution and individual ownership takes precedence over the concept of "community knowledge".[11] Relying on the concept of the author, copyright is based on the assumption that without an intellectual property rights regime, authors would have no incentive to further create, and that artists cannot produce new works without an economic incentive. Liang challenges this logic, arguing that "many authors who have little hope of ever finding a market for their publications, and whose copyright is, as a result, virtually worthless, have in the past, and even in the present, continued to write."[11] Liang points out that people produce works purely for personal satisfaction, or even for respect and recognition from peers. Liang argues that the 19th Century saw the prolific authorship of literary works in the absence of meaningful copyright that benefited the author. In fact, Liang argues, copyright protection usually benefited the publisher, and rarely the author.[11]

Preservation of cultural works[edit]

The Center for the Study of Public Domain has raised concerns on how the protracted copyright terms in the United States have caused historical films and other cultural works to be destroyed due to disintegration before they can be digitized.[12] The center has described the copyright terms as "absurdly long" which hold little economic benefit to rights holders and prevents efforts to preserve historical artefacts.[12] Director Jennifer Jenkins has said that by the time artefacts enter the public domain in the United States after 95 years, many culturally significant works such as old films and sound recordings have already been lost as a consequence of the long copyright terms.[13]

Ethical issues[edit]

The institution of copyright brings up several ethical issues.


Critics of copyright argue that copyright has been abused to suppress free speech,[14][15] as well as business competition,[16] academic research[17] and artistic expression.[18] As a consequence, copyright legislation such as DMCA has enabled copyright owners to "censor academic discussions and online criticism".[17]

Philosophical arguments[edit]

Selmer Bringsjord argues that all forms of copying are morally permissible (without commercial use), because some forms of copying are permissible and there is not a logical distinction between various forms of copying.[19]

Edwin Hettinger argues that natural rights arguments for intellectual property are weak and the philosophical tradition justifying property can not guide us in thinking about intellectual property.[20][21] Shelly Warwick believes that copyright law as currently constituted does not appear to have a consistent ethical basis.[22]

Organisations and scholars[edit]

Groups advocating the abolition of copyright[edit]

Demonstration in Sweden in support of file sharing, 2006

Pirate Cinema and groups like The League of Noble Peers advance more radical arguments, opposing copyright per se. A number of anti-copyright groups have recently emerged in the argument over peer-to-peer file sharing, digital freedom, and freedom of information; these include the Association des Audionautes[23][24] and the Kopimism Church of New Zealand.[25][26]

In 2003, Eben Moglen, a professor of Law at Columbia University, published The dotCommunist Manifesto, which re-interpreted the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx in the light of the development of computer technology and the internet; much of the re-interpreted content discussed copyright law and privilege in Marxist terms.[27]

Recent developments related to BitTorrent and peer-to-peer file sharing have been termed by media commentators as "copyright wars", with The Pirate Bay being referred to as "the most visible member of a burgeoning international anti-copyright—or pro-piracy—movement".[28][29] One well-publicised instance of electronic civil disobedience (ECD) in the form of large scale intentional copyright infringement occurred on February 24, 2004, in an event called Grey Tuesday. Activists intentionally violated EMI's copyright of The White Album by distributing MP3 files of a mashup album called The Grey Album, in an attempt to draw public attention to copyright reform issues and anti-copyright ideals. Reportedly over 400 sites participated including 170 that hosted the album with some protesters stating that The Grey Album illustrates a need for revisions in copyright law to allow sampling under fair use of copyrighted material, or proposing a system of fair compensation to allow for sampling.[30][31]

Groups advocating changes to copyright law[edit]

French group Association des Audionautes is not anti-copyright per se, but proposes a reformed system for copyright enforcement and compensation. Aziz Ridouan, co-founder of the group, proposes for France to legalise peer-to-peer file sharing and to compensate artists through a surcharge on Internet service provider fees (i.e. an alternative compensation system). Wired magazine reported that major music companies have equated Ridouan's proposal with legitimising piracy.[23] In January 2008, seven Swedish members of parliament from the Moderate Party (part of the governing coalition), authored a piece in a Swedish tabloid calling for the complete decriminalisation of file sharing; they wrote that "Decriminalising all non-commercial file sharing and forcing the market to adapt is not just the best solution. It's the only solution, unless we want an ever more extensive control of what citizens do on the Internet."[32]

In June 2015 a WIPO article, "Remix culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma",[33] acknowledged the "age of remixing" and the need for a copyright reform while referring to recent law interpretations in Lenz v. Universal Music Corp. and Canada's Copyright Modernization Act.

Groups advocating using existing copyright law[edit]

Groups that argue for using existing copyright legal framework with special licences to achieve their goals, include the copyleft movement[34] and Creative Commons.[35] Creative Commons is not anti-copyright per se, but argues for use of more flexible and open copyright licences within existing copyright law.[36] Creative Commons takes the position that there is an unmet demand for flexibility that allows the copyright owner to release work with only "some rights reserved" or even "no rights reserved". According to Creative Commons many people do not regard default copyright as helping them in gaining the exposure and widespread distribution they want. Creative Commons argue that their licences allow entrepreneurs and artists to employ innovative business models rather than all-out copyright to secure a return on their creative investment.[37]

Scholars and commentators[edit]

Scholars and commentators in this field include Lawrence Liang,[38] Jorge Cortell,[39] Rasmus Fleischer,[40] Stephan Kinsella, and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Traditional anarchists, such as Leo Tolstoy, expressed their refusal to accept copyright.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Larry Lessig (March 1, 2007). "Larry Lessig says the law is strangling creativity". ted.com. Archived from the original on October 21, 2019. Retrieved February 26, 2016.
  2. ^ "Swedish "Pirates'" Call for IP Reform Spurs Global Interest". Intellectual Property Watch. September 4, 2006. Archived from the original on September 3, 2018. Retrieved September 3, 2018.
  3. ^ Kinsella, Stephan Against Intellectual Property Archived October 8, 2022, at the Wayback Machine (2008) Ludwig von Mises Institute.
  4. ^ Green, Stuart P. When Stealing Isn't Stealing Archived January 30, 2018, at the Wayback Machine (2012) The New York Times
  5. ^ Heald, Paul J. (January 9, 2007). Property Rights and the Efficient Exploitation of Copyrighted Works: An Empirical Analysis of Public Domain and Copyrighted Fiction Best Sellers. 2nd Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies. doi:10.2139/ssrn.955954. S2CID 152927560. SSRN 955954.
  6. ^ Boyle, James (2008). The Public Domain. Archived from the original on January 24, 2016. Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  7. ^ Litman, Jessica (January 14, 2010). "Real Copyright Reform". Iowa Law Review. 96 (1). SSRN 1474929.
  8. ^ a b Fleischer, Rasmus (June 2008). "The Future of Copyright". CATO Unbound. Archived from the original on August 13, 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017. "We conclude that the snippet function does not give searchers access to effectively competing substitutes. Snippet view, at best and after a large commitment of manpower, produces discontinuous, tiny fragments, amounting in the aggregate to no more than 16% of a book. This does not threaten the rights holders with any significant harm to the value of their copyrights or diminish their harvest of copyright revenue," wrote the court.
  9. ^ "Google Books is 'highly transformative,' appeals court confirms in fair use ruling". Fortune. Archived from the original on September 4, 2018. Retrieved September 3, 2018.
  10. ^ "Second Manifesto". Hipatia. Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2008.
  11. ^ a b c d Liang, Lawrence (February 2005). "Copyright/Copyleft: Myths About Copyright". Infochangeindia.org. Archived from the original on August 13, 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  12. ^ a b Vermes, Jason (January 10, 2022). "How Winnie-the-Pooh highlights flaws in U.S. copyright law — and what that could mean for Canada". CBC Radio. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on March 8, 2022. Retrieved March 8, 2022.
  13. ^ "Why you can now repurpose 'Winnie-the-Pooh' for free". Australian Financial Review. Nine Entertainment. January 3, 2022. Archived from the original on October 8, 2022. Retrieved March 8, 2022.
  14. ^ Masnick, Mike (July 26, 2013). "Why Yes, Copyright Can Be Used To Censor, And 'Fair Use Creep' Is Also Called 'Free Speech'". Techdirt. Retrieved April 2, 2024.
  15. ^ Haber, Eldar (2013–2014). "Copyrighted Crimes: The Copyrightability of Illegal Works". Yale Journal of Law and Technology. 16: 454–501. ...censorship-by-copyright could endanger other constitutional rights, first and foremost First Amendment rights and possibly due process rights.
  16. ^ Cobia, Jeffrey (2008). "The Digital Millennium Copyright Act Takedown Notice Procedure: Misuses, Abuses, and Shortcomings of the Process". Minnesota Journal of Law Science & Technology. 1: 391–393 – via Hein Online.
  17. ^ a b Westbrook, Steve (April 9, 2009). Composition and Copyright: Perspectives on Teaching, Text-making, and Fair Use. State University of New York Press. p. 37-38. ISBN 978-1-4384-2599-3.
  18. ^ Ghosh, Arjun (2013). "Censorship through Copyright: From print to digital media". Social Scientist. 41 (1/2): 51–68. ISSN 0970-0293. JSTOR 23611080.
  19. ^ Selmer Bringsjord, "In Defence of Copying" Archived February 21, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Public Affairs Quarterly 3 (1989) 1–9.
  20. ^ Alfino, Mark, "Intellectual Property and Copyright Ethics" Archived October 4, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 10.2 (1991): 85–109. Reprinted in Robert A. Larmer (Ed.), Ethics in the Workplace, Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing Company, 1996, 278–293.
  21. ^ Edwin Hettinger, "Justifying Intellectual Property" Archived March 19, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 18 (1989) 31–52.
  22. ^ Warwick, Shelly. "Is Copyright Ethical? An Examination of the Theories, Laws, and Practices Regarding the Private Ownership of the Intellectual Work of the United States." Archived January 7, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Readings in Cyberethics. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard A. Spinello and Herman T. Tavani. Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2004: 305–321.
  23. ^ a b Rose, Frank (September 2006). "P2P Gets Legit". Wired. Archived from the original on August 13, 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  24. ^ Byfield, Bruce (May 2006). "FSF launches anti-DRM campaign outside WinHEC 2006". Linux. Archived from the original on August 13, 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  25. ^ Rose, Frank (April 2012). "Challenging Copyright". Kopimism.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ Byfield, Bruce (May 2012). "The case for copyright reform". Kopimism.[permanent dead link]
  27. ^ Moglen, Eben. "dotCommunist Manifesto". Archived from the original on November 9, 2005. Retrieved December 22, 2013.
  28. ^ Sarno, David (April 2007). "The Internet sure loves its outlaws". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved February 21, 2015.
  29. ^ Mitchell, Dan (August 2006). "Pirate Take Sweden". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 31, 2017. Retrieved February 19, 2017.
  30. ^ Kim, Melanie. "The Mouse that Roared, Grey Tuesday". Tech Law Advisor. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2008.
  31. ^ Werde, Bill (February 2004). "Defiant Downloads Rise From Underground". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 10, 2019. Retrieved September 7, 2017.
  32. ^ Bangeman, Eric (January 2008). "Swedish prosecutors dump 4,000 legal docs on The Pirate Bay". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on August 11, 2017. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  33. ^ Rostama, Guilda (June 1, 2015). "Remix Culture and Amateur Creativity: A Copyright Dilemma". WIPO. Archived from the original on March 23, 2016. Retrieved March 14, 2016. in 2013 a district court ruled that copyright owners do not have the right to simply take down content before undertaking a legal analysis to determine whether the remixed work could fall under fair use, a concept in US copyright law which permits limited use of copyrighted material without the need to obtain the right holder's permission (US District Court, Stephanie Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., Universal Music Publishing Inc., and Universal Music Publishing Group, Case No. 5:07-cv-03783-JF, January 24, 2013).[...] Given the emergence of today's "remix" culture, and the legal uncertainty surrounding remixes and mash-ups, the time would appear to be ripe for policy makers to take a new look at copyright law.
  34. ^ "What is Copyleft?". Archived from the original on July 29, 2008. Retrieved July 29, 2008.
  35. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Creative Commons. Archived from the original on November 27, 2010. Retrieved December 5, 2010.
  36. ^ "FAQ – Is Creative Commons against copyright?". Creative Commons. Archived from the original on November 27, 2010. Retrieved December 5, 2010.
  37. ^ "FAQ – What is Creative Commons?". Creative Commons. Archived from the original on November 27, 2010. Retrieved December 5, 2010.
  38. ^ "How Does An Asian Commons Mean". Creative Commons. Archived from the original on July 25, 2008. Retrieved July 31, 2008.
  39. ^ Jorge, Cortell (May 2005). "Lecturer censored in Spanish University (UPV) for defending P2P networks". Own Website. Archived from the original on May 21, 2005.
  40. ^ Fleischer, Rasmus (May 2006). ""Mechanical music" as a threat against public performance" (PDF). Institute of Contemporary History, Sodertorn University College. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 27, 2007.
  41. ^ Leo Tolstoy, Letter to the Free Age Press, 1900

External links[edit]