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Copyright and its Future

Preamble - Introduction to Copyright

Copyright is falling apart. Not just copyright, but the whole idea of owning ideas.

In fact, there used to be a time when copyright didn't exist. It might sound weird - but, when people came up with a song, they didn't say "this is my song", they just sang it to the people around them, and if it was particularly good, those people passed it around as well, if they wanted to change it, they did so - and that's how folk art was (and is) spread. With the advent of new technologies, people were able to efficiently "fix" their works onto a medium - and the demand for monetizing it had appeared. And people monetized it - without copyright! Just like now people sell copyrights to publishers, people sold manuscripts to publishers. And don't underestimate the money they could get from it - time to market was fairly long, so, despite the fact other publishers could print the same book eventually, the headstart was fairly noticable.

I think the old mindset is fairly logical. Even if you are the first to "have" an idea, as soon as you shared it, everyone can have the exact same idea you have! Humans are humans because of our ability to share knowledge with each other - it's what allowed us to quit being animals, to combine each others' ideas and create something that a single one of us could never hope to create - a shared culture. In other words, humans are like neurons that transfer information to each other in one big brain called "culture", and trying to limit the spread of ideas is... Brain damage.

That line of thought is less alien to you than you might think. For example, did you know that every word, every joke, every meme, has an author that created it for the first time? But you say words, tell jokes, share memes without thinking of the fact there was or is someone, somewhere, who was the first one to "come up" with it.

First attempts to control copying came... from the church. In fact, before the invention of the printing press, the church already controlled copying - they were the ones doing it (manually)! Writing down an entire book's contents manually is tough work - and the church was the main agent performing it. Obviously, it would be bad to lose such control over culture to some pesky new technology - what if people, god forbid (hehe), start spreading heresy? That's why (at least in the UK, where copyright originated) control over the printing press was given to a guild under church control.

Some time after, people protested the guild's control - and the UK Parliament listened, refusing to renew the licensing act. But that didn't last long - guild members were seeking to restore their monopoly, and after 10 years of persuasion the Statute of Anne was passed. It was way better than the old monopoly, as it essentially created a... market for monopolies? rather than having them all be controlled by a single entity - but let's not forget copyright is still what it is - it was a monopoly before, it stays a monopoly now.

But everyone knows monopolies are bad - surely lawmakers aren't an exception! What led them to introduce such a law, and what led others to follow suit?

Originally, copyright was created as a way to speed up the creation of new works so more of them are freely available for everyone (though now people seem to conveniently forget that reasoning). The original logic is that by temporarily giving copyright to an author, you can let them control the work's scarcity and thus increase their income, and that will end up incentivizing more people to create and thus more works will end up being available. Hindsight is 20/20 - nowadays some works are created just to be gone, some works' authors don't put any effort in preserving them until they enter the public domain, and everyone (Sadly, including me to some extent - social norms are often followed subconsciously) considers copyright a natural right rather than a means to an end.

Take, for example, limited edition, or time-limited works. The people who created copyright could, perhaps, foresee limited edition works, but time-limited works is certainly an invention made possible only by modern technology. Nobody could foresee the creation of the internet in the 18th century - but that's precisely what gives copyright owners the power to instantly destroy the work, making it gone forever (If not for archivists who preserve it either privately or illegally, or both). Modern copyright is controlled solely by copyright holders, there's hardly any forces pushing against that - which led to copyright owners gaining more and more power, both socially and legally. It can be seen clearly if you compare copyright to patents - copyright term expanded way past what it originally was, but patents still "only" last for 20 years.

In fact, one particularly baffling development occured at the end of the last millenium - copyright owners got the ability to... program their own laws! Yep, that's right - previously they could only create "license agreements", which are essentially written contracts, but now they could write these contracts using code - by using something called "DRM". At its core, the law introducing DRM says the following:

Do you understand how broken that is? It gives copyright owners a way to control every aspect of how the work is being used. Are you blind and need to use a screen reader [1]? Too bad! Do you want to make a private copy for backup [1]? Too bad! Want your country to opt out of this stupid law [2]? TOO BAD!

Some countries allow authors to terminate any license they give to others to protect them from predatory publishers. Sounds like a great law, right? Except it doesn't account for the existence of free software [3] and other works created by a shared collective! It allows an author of free software to say - "you know what, I don't want my software to be free after all - I hereby retract all of the licenses I gave to others for using and distributing my software - they can't use it anymore". This law challenges the entire premise of free software, which states that if a program is free you don't need to worry about how you use it, since you will forever be free to use it however you want! It might work well to protect authors from "evil" publishers, but it doesn't work well in a world where anyone can be both an author, a publisher, a consumer and everything in between.

Expanding on my last point - one reason copyright worked relatively well in the past is because publishing was prohibitively expensive. You can't expect an average Joe to buy a printing press, can't you? The fact copyright restricts copying wasn't too much of a burden for the common folk - they can't print a copy of a book for a friend? So what, they wouldn't be able to print it anyway! But in this world, everyone is a publisher. I am publishing this article right now, you are publishing your own content when you write a new tweet, youtubers constantly publish their own content. The reason everyone became a publisher is simple - copying is easy now! When you open this article, a copy of it is generated by my web server and sent to you. It might get copied at some point by someone else - perhaps a caching proxy is somewhere between us. Copying is so easy that we pay no thought to it.

The fact copying is so easy also means copyright suddenly started affecting all of us - not just the select few who could afford it. That means copyright's cost to society became higher - perhaps the original reasoning for introducing copyright wouldn't hold if it were to be introduced now! Since the law places a burden of copyright on us, independent creation and publishing becomes harder, cementing our role as mere Consumers taking the Content we've been so graciously given by the genius Creators and their Publishers. The thought anyone can easily become a creator, or a publisher, gets burrowed in the back of our mind, causing us to lead a more passive existence. That applies to software as well - proprietary software which you can't modify forces its users to accept its quirks - if it doesn't work for you, or if you'd prefer it to act or look in a way not originally intended, there's nothing you can do about it, you are either granted a fix by the copyright owner, or you aren't - you can't change anything yourself, and even if you do, the solution isn't guaranteed to work in the future.

Not to mention the everlasting copyright term expansion, which is thankfully slowing down, which does little to console me about the fact the works I create will only enter the public domain well over 100 years from now. The original copyright term was 14 years, with an optional extension by 14 more years. That is a bit too much for my taste - the modern rate of change is way quicker than that of the 18th century - but I could accept copyright if it was around 14 years. Since then, it had been extended over and over. One of the lobbyists was so pervasive the latest USA copyright extension act was dubbed "Mickey Mouse Protection Act". All in all, from 14 years originally, nowadays copyright lasts... 70 years after author's death.


Leaving the thoughts about the incentive to kill certain popular authors aside, the term is really way too much, unless you believe copyright should not ever end (Which some people do, and I'll laugh at them - do you want to pay royalties to descendants of the Romans who invented the alphabet, or to descendants of folk tale authors? Do you realize you don't even pay thought to the fact some of the things you take for granted have authors?). Copyright came to be way more impactful than intended originally.

To further prove my point, neural networks are one of the forefronts of technology these days. There are neural networks trained to create new art. You know how most of them work? Copyright infringement! Normally, if you use a work that's not in the public domain, you must at least credit the author [4], even if the use is minimal (Like if you sample something in a track). Everything that involves others' "artistic expression", whatever that means (that's the law, not my own words), falls under copyright. And how do neural networks work? They get trained on existing works, over and over - and then combine them into something new! In fact, that's precisely what humans do, but we (usually) know when to change something just enough so we can proudly say we made it. Machines, however, know nothing of such formalities - and the cat is let out of the bag - what we consider new and unique is really just combining what other people made and adding just enough for it to feel new. It might make you feel denial, or doubt some of your core beliefs - I don't think that just anyone would be able to accept "creation" for what it truly is. Nonetheless, I fully stand behind what I just wrote. If you want some examples, watch the video I will link at the end of this article, but the simplest one is multiple discovery.


That raises some question about the future of copyright. At this rate, we will further go towards the path paved by copyright holders, which involves "creation" for the sake of "creation", rather than enriching our culture, as well as the separation between content "creation" and "consumption". The copyright culture prevalent in society today is causing many to take it for granted, seeking compensation for what ought to be shared freely, and any attempt at challenging it is met with lawsuits by those wishing to keep the status quo [5] [6] [7] [8] [9].

Neural networks are slowly starting to replace creators. Even if we keep pretending we all are geniuses that create unique content that couldn't possibly have been created by anyone else, what do we do about neural networks? If we keep streightening the copyright regime, we must either make sure neural networks stay crippled so they can't infringe copyright, or monitor those utilizing neural networks to make sure nothing they publish infringes someone's copyright.

Essentially, we are faced with a choice - do we double down on our morals that we use to justify rent-seeking, and lose all chances of total automation (and personally, I'm a strong advocate of total automation - imagine not having to do any work in order to survive!), alongside all of the other downsides copyright brings with itself, or do we set the morals and "common sense" aside and try to restructure our life around the new world order as people struggle to find their place in it? Both options kinda suck, so it's no surprise the former option is chosen by the lawmakers - after all, that's what people with lots of money tell them to follow, and there's not too much opposition - and it is the less risky option of the two.

What do we do about the works that are about to be gone? In the past, a great thing called libraries was invented. Even if you didn't personally own a book, you could go there and read it. Even if a book was abandoned by its author, you could go there and read it. Libraries served to counter-balance the issues copyright brings. However, the law is falling behind the ages, and the libraries were unable to legally keep with the times - they can archive some works, but not other. Besides, for some kinds of content, you can't just copy the data and expect to be able to access it 100, 500 years in the future - you need a Free/Libre and Open Source program that loads the file in order to have any chance of preserving it. There are people doing just that - much to dislike of copyright holders.

What do we do about the inequality? Copyright is only economically viable for countries that consume locally and export more content than they import. While in theory the existence of copyright can bring foreign investment and kickstart local content creation - which is often promised to the countries hesitating to sign the "intellectual property" treaties - that essentially means people are legally forced to pay a tax to foreign content producers, which are usually located in 1-st world countries, like USA and Japan. That doesn't just apply to copyright - drug patents can make disease treatment prohibitively expensive if the high pricing is kept in 3rd-world countries, and since the choices to keep the pricing high are made consciously by drug patent owners, you can even say - yes, intellectual property enforcement kills people.

What do we do about the fact most people already internalized copyright? Owning an idea is natural to most. Copyright is considered natural and expected, any opposition to it is met with dismissal and name-calling, you will be labeled a "pirate" even if you downloaded a game that is no longer being sold (which does no harm to the original creator - the game isn't being sold so they wouldn't get any money either way!).

If you expect me to give an easy way forward that will solve the problems I listed, you expect way too much from me. However, I do have some tips on leading the world towards a better future:

  1. Contribute to Free Culture! Directly opposing the social norms is counter-productive - you will only be met with hostility, which may increase copyright's power even more. Instead, try to show people an alternative to copyright exists.
    • Contribute to free online databases like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap (See StreetComplete).
    • When looking for content to use in your works, seek sources that use the Creative Commons licenses, or other free licenses.
    • License your own works under one of the Creative Commons licenses (I recommend CC-BY or CC-BY-SA, personally I often use CC0, other CC licenses are fairly restrictive but it's still better than most non-CC options). Remember - not stating a license equals "all rights reserved"! Choosing a license lets other people use your work in new ways you may not have even thought about!
  2. Contribute to Free Software! Free Software means you're free to use the program in any way, including selling it. That freedom means anyone has the power to take development into their own hands, and if you're a program developer, surely you can also sell it, right? The person who formalized the concept believes that either you control the program, or the program controls you.
    • Use free licenses, such as the GNU General Public License. Using the GPL means any improvements people make will also be free, and those who receive the program from them can in turn make their own changes.
    • Even if you aren't a developer - if you want something to be improved in a free program - ask, or pay your programmer friend to do it! If all goes well, that work will benefit everyone using the program, and in the worst case at least you will personally benefit from it!
    • Use a free desktop operating system, such as the Linux family. It might be challenging at first - but there's heaps of documentation available online in English - there are many success stories of non-technical people learning to use it and taking control of their computing! I'll go as far as to say you can't fully appreciate it if your views don't align with the anti-copyright ideology - some people trying out Linux expect to take a passive role in it, just like they do in Windows or Mac OS - but that's not the kind of user Linux systems are built with in mind.
    • If you use an Android device - try to replace some of the apps you use with free ones, installed from F-Droid. If feeling adventurous, try a custom ROM, the instructions and ROMs are available on XDA Forums (English) and 4pda (Russian). Many people fear bricking their phones by flashing it, but that's actually very rare! Just remember you will lose all of your data after flashing, so make sure to back it up beforehand.
    • Remember - free software can be sold! If you want to make money developing free software - you can! Nobody forces you to release the source code online for everyone to see.
    • There's a more widely used term used to describe the same concept - "Open Source". However, Open Source doesn't have any ideological connotations - it's simply a development methodology. Look up the differences if you want to know more!
    • Even if you don't contribute to the copyright owner financially, you stay under their control and contribute to the way we view copyright.
  3. If you're looking for something more dangerous - help preserve our culture! Use sites like archive.org to make sure the culture gets passed to new generations, so at some point it enters public domain! I believe that history is very important - and in this day and age, anyone can contribute to preserving it!
    • If you're looking for communities of like-minded people, check out /r/DataHoarder and find your own way from there.
    • Some keywords for you to look up - Libgen, Sci-Hub, Open access, Pirate Party...
  4. Support local organizations sharing the same values! That includes:
  5. Help debunk misconceptions about copyright!
    • Consider not using the term "intellectual property", which really describes multiple different laws.
    • Educate others about copyright's nature and history!
    • Promote free culture and software values by pointing out the way copyright affects our lifes.


Copyright's failures to adapt to the modern world are becoming increasingly clear. Nonetheless, the society is unable to notice that. To counteract copyright's presence, you need to take a conscious stance against it - which, like all ideological stances, might conflict with convenience or social acceptance. You don't have to do all of what I recommend - some people depend on non-free works and software too much, but perhaps that in itself can show how much we are controlled by those works' owners by means of copyright.

Thank you for reading this far! If you like what I wrote above, consider subscribing to me on Patreon watching the following video: Everything is a Remix. It independently states what I stated above in perhaps a more accessible and entertaining form, so you can share it with your friends! Really, watch it if you haven't already, it has some of the best editing I've seen on YouTube!


^[1] To be fair, new copyright law exceptions are being passed sometimes - for example, in some countries bypassing DRM is legal if you do it because of special accessibility needs, or if you only do it for backup - but how can you bypass it if nobody can legally make or even just give you a tool for doing it?

^[2] DRM is part of the WIPO Copyright treaty, and withdrawing your signature is an economical suicide for the country that does it.

^[3] By "Free Software" I mean Free as in Freedom, a concept similar to open-source software, as opposed to freeware, meaning software that is distributed free of charge.

^[4] Notably, you can freely use most of this blog's content without attribution.

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