Writing in the latest issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand offers a brilliant explication of the purpose of copyright. As a long-time believer that US copyright law is not attuned to the possibilities or the reality of life in the digital age, I read his piece with interest.
In this passage--which I hereby quote thanks to the protection of fair use--Menand is especially trenchant: "The idea of a public domain belongs to the theory that individual rights are intended to promote public goods...So the right to make copies was imagined by the Framers [of the US Constitution] as a way to encourage the writing of books by individuals for the good of an educated citizenry. But, if you are a natural-rights person and you think that individual rights are inalienable, then you don't recognize the priority of the public domain. You think that society has no claim on works created by individuals...It's a moral right, and it cannot be legislated away."
I stand squarely with the public domain. Article I of the United States Constitution grants Congress power "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." These "limited Times" have increased mutlifold since the US Constitution was written. Today only items produced prior to 1923 are in the public domain/out of copyright.
That amount of time is far too long. But whatever the length of this "limited Time," copyright exists to fulfill socially desirable ends. It's not a natual right but a socially embedded one.
Pre-Web it was onerous for anyone to make mass copies of copyrighted works, requiring numerous trips to the photocopy machine or a large expense account at Kinko's. And if you reprinted someone's work without their permission, this was appropriately seen as theft.
On the Web distributing "copies" is how the whole thing works. I did not contact Menand before linking to his article in this blog post, and would never expect anyone to contact me if they wanted to link to my own writing. On the contrary, I would be pleased that my ideas were reaching a larger audience and excited about where that conversation might lead.
So I don't need or want to clutch onto copyright as a means of inducing me to write these posts. To tell the truth I don't think that any bonafide creators ever do. Of course, artists and writers deserve compensation. But if my ideas spark a discourse that leads to teaching, speaking or consulting opportunities there it is.