We can all agree that copyright is not suited to the digital age, given that the UK law was drafted in an analogue era. The move to digital and the remarkable growth of the Internet forever changed the landscape to which copyright law applies. As the law has been slow to respond to this landscape, contracts and licences have stepped into the breach to serve as solutions in the interim period, controlling the use of works online. My knowledge of the complexities of contract law is not strong, but as far as I understand it, contract law in the majority of cases supersedes copyright law, particularly when it comes to taking a claim to court. In my view, it is probably easier to prove breach of contract than infringement of copyright, and possibly cheaper too. Now, if copyright were to be abolished, what of licences and contracts? Would they simply disappear? I think not; rights holders (including publishers and recording agencies) would continue to monetise content (to some extent) as a commodity through contracts. When you purchase a song online, you would still have to abide by the terms and conditions of the contract by which you purchase it. If that contract contained a clause which said “upon purchase of this work you agree that it is solely for your own private use”, then if the song was (say) shared online on a public website for free download, the publisher/rights holder would be able to sue the purchaser for breach of contract. And we would return to the inherent problem of organisations pursuing individuals for file-sharing.
For educational establishments, a significant element in the abolition of copyright would be their relationship with collecting societies, if they continued to exist. After all, the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) would no longer be able to keep its name in a world without copyright. It is difficult to see the need for collecting societies in a world without copyright; this makes the abolition of copyright rather attractive for education, which would save over £100,000 per year in licence fees. But on the flip side, would there still be an incentive for authors and creators to produce content for learning and education? Academics must produce journal articles to remain ahead in their field and to share research, so the incentive to create will not be removed, particularly as they are not independently paid to write. Books perhaps would be another matter; in a world without copyright, should an academic desire to write a book, getting it published could be difficult as publishers may be reluctant to invest in something which instantly could be made available for free across the world. Journal publishers too would become aggregators of a large amount of free content, and without the money they generate from licensing, would likely decrease in quality and perhaps eventually decline. In our capitalist society, people don’t like working for free. Businesses can generate advertising revenue, but publishers would have their livelihoods pulled out from beneath them, meaning no money for salaries and therefore job losses. Would authors write academic textbooks and similar for free? Some are very enthusiastic and may well do, particularly if they are already employed and don’t have to live off what they write, but others would have little incentive as the equation to them looks like a lot of time and effort for no reward.
Perhaps most significantly: where does a world without copyright leave academic discipline? Copyright surely underpins the foundations of plagiarism, as there is currently a defence in copyright law that if a work of copyright is used for the purposes of examination, it does not infringe so long as there is sufficient acknowledgement. If I, as a student, could copy and use someone else’s entire thesis or dissertation, why would I have to reference it? Could I not pass it off as my own? And if so, where would be my punishment, as I have not done anything wrong? It may not be my original work, but in a world without copyright, why should originality matter? Would it matter if I got a First as a result of reproducing other people’s work? To my mind, there is a lot of injustice in this particular issue – it feels morally and ethically wrong to merely reproduce other people’s work and pass it off as your own, as it levels the playing field. A good plagiarist, who can remix and re-work other people’s work so as to create something sufficiently original, would be more commendable in this instance, as it shows independent skill and judgement, than one who merely spouts verbatim someone else’s work with little or no original intellectual thought.
The academic world seeks to encourage learning and research by building on others’ arguments. There is currently a means for this in copyright law. Without copyright law, what is the criteria for distinguishing a poor student from an excellent one? Writing style perhaps? But if this is copied from another’s work? This sets a poor precedent for the good of society, discouraging original intellectual process and carefully constructed arguments and replacing them with laziness. And with this comes the question of ownership: without copyright, would it matter who the author was? Could you even prove they were the original author? Would it be necessary to? No, for in a world without copyright, the author is bereft; the more appreciative of us would give a hat-tip to the original creator, but others would not. The easy replication and re-use of content means that one is at a loss as to who the original author actually is, and also negates the citation process.
From the tone of this post, you may gather that I am not for the abolition of copyright, as I recognise its value to creators. But I also recognise the problems with it. Without copyright, truly original content would diminish significantly, and in its place would be remixes of previous content, in themselves no bad thing, but would we really just want that? We all lead busy lives, and I’m sure all of us at some stage have thought about writing a book, but would it really be worth giving up your weekends and evenings for several years to write a masterpiece if you knew you would receive little reward? There are some people who do this, and I don’t say that it is a bad thing, but they are few and far between. We are driven by capitalism, and that means making money wherever we see the opportunity. If content cannot be monetised, services would have to be more so, and so the trade off as a consumer would be to pay significantly more for the services of the creatives who once made a living from their copyright works. For the photographer, it would be the services of his photographic studio; for the musician, it would be the ticket sales of live gigs. For education? I would argue that academic discipline would be sacrificed, although educational establishments would save a lot of money in licensing fees. A world without copyright is akin to the “golden age” presented by Gonzalo in The Tempest (Act II sc.i), an ideal to aspire to but which cannot exist in a capitalist society where money is the driver and not morality and goodwill.