The Internet has been around for almost 50 years now, and one thing that has remained apparent in its use is a large indifference to copyright laws. Infringement on copyright has become more than simply routine; many consider it perfectly acceptable to download or distribute copyright music, movies, books. Copyright infringement is a task made much simpler as technology has advanced, yet more and more people seem to find nothing wrong with this. It raises a question: is copyright morally justified?
The idea of copyright is to give legal control of the work to the creator. In practical terms, it allows the creator to profit from the ownership of their creation, and prevents others from undermining their ability to do so. It’s a practice that exists to solely benefit the creators, which is not wholly unreasonable.
However, by diminishing the power of copyrighting, we deprive the community at large of a valuable resource. This stifles the spread of information and culture, which is meant to enrich society as a whole. Is it right for us to say that these works, the basis for much of our culture and conversation, can be restricted?
If we were to apply this concept to reality, we would find that the question is not nearly so clean-cut. If a creator does not have a right or ability to control their works, then there is little to be gained in creating them. If we are to use these materials, do we not have a moral obligation to compensate the individual whose effort brought it into existence?
With that said, there is also the reality of the system to consider. Many copyright materials are controlled more by publishers and other entities than by their creators. Some have made the case that these companies, which have sometimes embraced unsavory practices in in exploiting and protecting these materials, have not earned the right to profit from them. As such, the moral obligation to compensate the creator may not exist in this case.
However, these arrangements with publishers are almost always beneficial to the creator. They receive compensation, and the ability to see their work distributed more widely than they could achieve on their own. But by circumventing the publisher’s control, we damage that mutually beneficial relationship that many creators rely upon for their livelihood.
Another issue is the idea that, by controlling the flow of ideas, we discourage the creation of certain other materials. The progress of technology and the Internet has allowed for a wide variety of derivative materials to arise, such as unofficial music videos and fanfiction, among others. Parody and satire of various media are also a strong presence online. Should these works, then, be controlled by the copyright holders of the works they are based on?
There is little that is clear-cut about this situation. While these derivative works may incorporate ideas from other sources, most are unlikely to actually affect the copyright holder’s interests. Few of these works supplant the ones they are derived from, and so are unlikely to affect the holder’s ability to benefit from those works. Of a more murky nature is the question of whether these derivative works damage the integrity of the original, which could indirectly affect the livelihood of the creator. However, there is no simple answer.
In the end, the ability of the creator to control the distribution of their work is paramount in their ability to benefit from it. Without it, many avenues of distribution would be simply impractical, limiting the choices for consumers. Many works that people enjoy today are only possible because the idea of copyright is embraced. But perhaps most importantly, creators would not be able to benefit from their own ideas and concepts, and that should be unacceptable.
Randall Hellmer is a senior in mass communications. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.