Copyright law doesn’t make sense on the Internet

Last year, Viacom sued YouTube for a billion dollars over copyright infringement. The lawsuit is problematic and the premise is weak for many reasons, but that’s for another time. The recent news is that Google has filed its response to Viacom’s recent filings. Its defence has people talking about the ideological and political battle that is the backdrop of this lawsuit, namely its effects on copyright law.

Mike Masnick from Techdirt observes that this is ultimately about the difference between content and communication:

Media companies still look on the internet as a content platform. That is, they think of it as a new broadcast medium. Most other folks recognize that the internet is a communications medium, and the focus should be on the ease of communication. That’s a problem for anyone who comes from a world of broadcast media, and it creates all sorts of problems for copyright law that is designed mainly to protect a broadcast-style media. Yet, when it comes to communication, the idea of using copyright to restrict content gets weird in a hurry. [emphasis mine]

In typical communication, copyright makes no sense. You don’t worry about copyright (even though it exists) when you send a letter or an email to a friend. You’re communicating, so of course the idea gets copied and repeated. In broadcast, the broadcast media model was always based on control and artificial scarcity.

Applying copyright to a communications platform sure does get weird in a hurry. My chat client keeps logs on my computer. Do my friends and co-workers have copyright claims on my chat logs? Am I infringing copyright if I forward an email I receive? Who owns the comments on a blog? Do music royalties make sense online?

Copyright was crafted to regulate broadcast mediums, not communications platforms. That’s a very compelling reason why it makes little sense on the Internet.

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