How long should copyright last in a digital age?

We don't have an IP problem. We have a payment problem. It's solvable.

Victor Keegan of The Guardian asks an important question for today's market of near-disposable IP: how long should we allow copyright to endure? When business models increasingly revolve around immediate monetization, does it make sense to hold copyright for 50 to 70 years after the creator dies?

It is curious that there is so much pressure to extend copyright in an internet age defined by the willingness to share knowledge freely, ranging from Wikipedia to the genome project. The reason? Producer lobbies are far more powerful than difficult-to-organise consumer ones.

I'm somewhat biased in this - after all, my understanding of IP came of age under the tutelage of Larry Lessig in law school - but I believe the desire to extend copyright interminably bodes ill for both consumers and creators of intellectual property. That is, provided we actually policed it, which we fortunately don't (or don't strictly) [PDF].

As Keegan points out, and which I've noted before, we don't really have a "respect for IP" problem that goads us into extending copyright. It's just that our producers are still tweaking business models for a digital age that recognize the ease of copying and capitalize on this, rather than fear or shun it:

The problem is that the debate is dominated by the music and film industries perpetuating the myth that an entire generation of children is being brought up to believe music is free by right through internet downloads. Don't blame the kids, blame the industry. The same kids are paying up to £3 a shot for inferior ringtones. They are only downloading for free where the music industry has failed to provide an affordable payments system free of ridiculous restrictions about only playing a track on one device without copying it, etc. Such constraints make criminals of us all. Where there is a half-decent payments system (eg, Apple's iPhone or Nokia's music system), punters pay.

Through radio and other means, we're being taught to expect and demand free. And so we should, as radio and other channels for IP consumption demonstrate that there are ways to monetize the ever-expanding use of IP. This is the point. Where there's abundance and consumption of that abundance , there are huge piles of cash to be made.

Copyright effectively endures for eternity today, given how fast markets move. Most businesses in today's and tomorrow's worlds fail/will fail to capitalize on their IP, which leaves most of the world's creations out of bounds when they could be put to use by the remixers of IP. Namely, everyone.

We don't have an IP problem. We have a momentary problem figuring out how to monetize IP in a digital world. Software is figuring it out through SaaS and open source. The music and film industries will figure it out, too. In fact, iTunes shows the way, as Keegan indicates. We shouldn't be too quick to jump on copyright extensions to solve a problem that really has nothing to do with copyright, except for the unfortunate fetishing of it.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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