3 Insane Ways Companies Are Using Copyrights to Bully You
Even the Napster generation has to admit that, on a certain level, copyright law is pretty sick. If we didn't protect the rights of creative people to be able to make money off the stuff they involuntarily squirt out of their brains, then the careers of Stan Lee, Steven Spielberg, and whoever invented inspirational cat posters would've amounted to nothing more than whatever they could throw together on the bus home from the fat-rendering plant. Copyright law protects creators and gives them the incentive to create more, and they need that protection, because God help them if they ever dissatisfy us.
But like Doc Brown's time machine or a bitchin' singing voice, copyright law is an incredible power that can be used for both good and evil, and unfortunately, most of its tunes seem to be striking a particularly evil note. Because it turns out ...
The Whole Point of Anti-Piracy Measures Is to Stop You from Doing Legal Things
You're probably most familiar with copyright bullshit from your dealings with DRM, or digital rights management. It's a technological quirk that can be as simple as preventing you from playing a DVD from the wrong region or as infuriating as a video game that won't let you play single player unless you're online. That shit may seem stupider than a coffee enema, but it's just a side effect of security measures, right? That's understandable, at least -- I want the people behind House of Cards to make money, because that show inspired me to spend the rest of my life making stupid analogies in a broad Southern accent. In my book, those folks have earned the shit out of their retirement just for that.
Actually, there's a big secret: DRM isn't about preventing privacy; it's about stifling innovation. The fewer things a company lets you do with the stuff they sell you, the less you can tinker with it, and the less likely you are to come up with a newer, better idea. And that's not just speculation -- an actual empirical study found that DRM is stopping more legal things from happening than illegal things. A blind woman who couldn't get her screen reader to read aloud the Bible e-book that she had legally purchased ended up being forced to pirate a copy. Of the Bible. Then there's the arguably worse situation that happened to me, where I wasn't able to take a screenshot of my Aliens Blu-ray to use as my desktop because Blu-ray doesn't let you take screenshots -- even though it's totally legal and I really really wanted to.
So now I just have this.
As tragic as it is that the world will never see the high-res collage of Hudson's freakout faces that exists in my mind, the real point here is that all the crap they feed us about "preventing piracy" is just an excuse -- the reality is that they want to use DRM to control the market. That's exactly why the MPAA and RIAA wanted to make it illegal to break DRM -- even if it meant putting your life in danger. And now that you know how their priorities shake out, it shouldn't surprise you that ...
Companies Are Using Our Limited Understanding of Copyright Law to Bully Us
Confession time: I'm not normally much of a sportser, but ever since Seattle's Football Group crushed whoever the opposing group was in the Super Bowl, I've been riding pretty high on the inflated sense of self-worth that comes with being the Nation's Master Footballers. But as a noob, I thought it was weird how all the bars advertised their parties by talking about the "Big Game" instead of the "Super Bowl." I mean, I get that all of us in the Pacific Northwest are hipsters and fiercely uninterested in stuff everyone else likes, but if it's your fucking job to scribble a notice on a blackboard, you can at least use your retro flip phone to text your friend and ask him to Google what "the big thing happening tonight" is, right? How else will we know this isn't a bait and switch?
"Here, just put this up. True football fans will know what it means."
The answer (as you probably know) is that the NFL insists that it's illegal for anyone to use the phrase "Super Bowl" in their advertising unless they're an official sponsor, which is (as you probably didn't know) complete horseshit. There's no reason you can't use "Super Bowl" in casual reference to it existing, because if it were illegal to do that, that law would be completely insane. It's totally fine for Cracked (or anyone else) to talk about the Super Bowl because just using the phrase doesn't automatically imply sponsorship, and if I wrote "Seahawks Super Bowl Champs 2014" on my wall, the only crime anyone could accuse me of is being a poseur. And yet everyone, from newspapers to my favorite bar, heeded the NFL's threats. The ironic part is that by placing such strict controls on how people can reference the Super Bowl, they're hurting every local business' ability to capitalize on the event, even though stimulating the local economy is their justification for existing in the first place -- but they don't give a fuck. They once sued a church for showing the game on a big screen TV. The NFL cares as much about the human social construct of morality as an exterminator cares about the standard of living in a termite colony.
The issue is that even though copyright law impacts our day-to-day lives, most people don't have the slightest clue how it works. How many times have you seen the words "I do not own this video!" in the "about" section of a movie clip that's been illegally uploaded to YouTube, apparently written under the impression that admitting you're doing something illegal somehow makes it legal, even though that's the dumbest thing anyone has ever thought.
"No, I tweeted that I was selling crack to children, so this doesn't count! Loophole!"
But the NFL thing isn't even the worst example. A DMCA takedown notice is a legal request to remove illegally used copyrighted material, and big corporations have a habit of blasting them all over the face of any website that looks at them funny. Even if you know you haven't done anything illegal, disobeying that notice can be scary because it involves opening yourself up to lawsuit, and if you posted your copyright-infringing creation on a third-party website, like YouTube, sometimes they won't even let you file the counter-notice. So if you post a negative review of a movie and use a clip from that movie to prove your point (which is totally legal under fair use) and then post that clip to YouTube, the people who own the rights to that movie can shut your butt down. It doesn't matter who's right: In a legal fight, the advantage always goes to whoever has a huge team of lawyers on payroll.
They're Trying to Destroy the Most Important Creative Resource We Have
"Public domain" refers to every creative property in the world that isn't controlled by any one corporation or person, and it includes the Bible, Robin Hood, most novelty sex positions ... it's the central nervous system of our entire popular culture, and whether or not you knew what it was before I just told you about it, you owe a small part of your life to it, because it's been responsible for most of your favorite things.
Do you like TV shows where the lead character is an obnoxious asshole who's smarter than everyone else? Well, House of Cards, Sherlock, Lie to Me, and Suits only got made because of the success of House, M.D., which was a medical reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, a character that they could adapt for free because he's in the public domain. Or maybe you love Christmas, where everything from your Christmas carols to the second best Christmas movie ever made to (as Maxwell Yezpitelok already explained) the popularity of It's a Wonderful Life come straight from public domain. Or perhaps you're into musical theater (don't look at me like that; I just don't want anyone to feel excluded), in which case Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked were all adapted from works that anyone could use for free, and might not have ever been created otherwise.
"OK, party's over, assholes. You're all under arrest."
Hell, even our cultural obsession with zombies is owed to something entering the public domain: George A. Romero forgot to add the copyright claim to the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, and since 1960s copyright law worked the exact same way as calling shotgun, that meant the rights to that movie were shared with everyone. Which is lucky for us, because the unauthorized sequels and remakes ended up creating what you now know of as a zombie movie -- the only reason anyone thinks of zombies as wanting to eat our brains is because of one of these sequels. Romero kinda got screwed, but we all reaped the benefits.
Obviously I'm not saying that everything should be public domain, but since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle isn't going to be collecting royalty checks for Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock show (on account of him being super dead), it's clear that everyone wins by having the character end up in public domain eventually. And that's exactly how it used to work: Until recently, your "rights" to a story you created were yours for up to 56 years after you created, at which point it automatically entered the great casserole of human creativity. So at the beginning of every year, that casserole gets a bunch of new ingredients.
"I added zombies because every goddamn thing in the world has zombies now. Enjoy."
Theoretically, anyway. This year, we should have gotten Superman, Atlas Shrugged, and On the Road (among others). Instead, we got ... well, jack shit. And we'll be getting seconds of jack shit every January until 2019, because some assholes from (mainly) the film industry have spent the past few decades continuously lobbying to change the laws and extend copyright protection for as long as possible. They're clinging to their intellectual property like an unsightly blemish on an otherwise majestic set of genitals, and they're just as inhibiting.
And before you say "Well, weren't you just saying that people need to make money off the stuff they create?" keep in mind that the people making money off Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs sure as shit didn't create it. I don't think anyone who worked on that movie is even alive anymore, and yet Disney has kept control because they're Disney, and you're going to lose any argument with them because they own all the words you'd need to use to prove them wrong. The way the law works right now, anything published between 1950 and 1963 will remain under the control of whoever owns the copyright for, in some cases, 95 years after the publication date. For comparison, a patent on a new drug only lasts 20 years after it's invented, so whoever cures cancer will have less control over their contribution to society than the makers of a Larry the Cable Guy movie.
"Take two of these eatin' pills and git 'er done."
But somehow, it gets even worse, because now companies can legally copyright things they didn't even create. Once you make an adaptation of a work that's in the public domain (like, say, Disney's entire filmography), you gain the rights to all the "copyrightable elements" of that adaptation. What this means is that when Sam Raimi was making Oz the Great and Powerful (based on The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, which are in the public domain), he had to be sure that he didn't use any "copyrightable elements" from the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, since that's still owned by Warner Bros. That's probably why, in Oz the Great and Powerful, the witches were zombies, the monkeys were demons, and the movie was un-fucking-watchable.
Look, I'm not ranting like this because I hate capitalism, or even major corporations -- movies like Aliens and Pacific Rim are only made because big corporations can throw money at weird ideas. But I also love creative people, because they make life bearable, and I want them to be free to keep saying weird, funny things about this big stupid world. And if we give the guys in the suits too much control over what we can and can't say or create, that's just not going to happen as much, and I'll have to go back to arson for my emotional release.
JF Sargent has a Twitter, a Facebook, and a free sci-fi novel that you can illegally reproduce in 95 years (and counting).