A Journey Through Copyrights in the Internet Age By: Sarah Crawford Cassaundra Fincke and Claire Hollingsworth
// Posted by Claire on 04/20/2014 (5:15 PM)
For our final project, we are examining copyright laws and infringement to address the question of how far these laws should go before they impede creativity. Mainly, we are interested in the question of whether these laws protect individuals… Read more
For our final project, we are examining copyright laws and infringement to address the question of how far these laws should go before they impede creativity. Mainly, we are interested in the question of whether these laws protect individuals and their ideas, or if they inhibit creativity, new work, and lead to the exploitation of the original idea-holders by large corporations. Given that the only way one can use copyrighted material is under the fair use clause, wherein the user is incorporating the material to make an argument, people violate copyright laws every day whether or not they realize they are doing so. The ability to create new ideas is somewhat dependent on the past in that one must analyze old and current material to create something new, thus making this matter of paramount importance.
In order to highlight the relevance of this topic, I chose to focus on a case study of the Walt Disney Corporation. Specifically, I am interested in why Walt Disney was so successful in remixing many works that came before their Disney equivalent when the same tactic is widely frowned upon today. Through my initial research, I came to understand that Walt Disney is considered to be brilliant because he “took work that was in the public domain and updated it, and made it relevant for our age”(Gaylor). His work “continued the conversation of a culture” (Gaylor). More precisely, we call this “‘Walt Disney creativity’- a form of expression and genius that builds upon the culture around us and makes it something different” (Lessig 24). A main factor that worked in Walt’s favor was timing. Copyright terms used to encompass more reasonable time spans as “From 1790 until 1978, the average copyright term was never more than thirty-two years, meaning that most culture just a generation and a half old was free for anyone to build upon without the permission of anyone else” (Lessig 24-25). In 1928 when Walt began creating, he was free to draw on ideas from the nineteenth century, content that was still relatively new, and make them his own.
Thus, I became interested in further exploring the perspective on remixing from the perspective of the audience/ general public. In the case of Disney, I wanted to explore whether Walt or any Disney pictures received backlash from the public regarding taking the original work of others to achieve the Disney level of success. However, my research attempts on this subject matter rendered little results in terms of academic exploration of this topic, leaving my conclusions up to speculation. Therefore, I decided I wanted to change my specific focus and approach to this case study. As I continued to read Lessig’s book, I found myself reflecting on the parallels of his argument with that of Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Both books emphasize the fact that it is not necessarily technology, or in this case copyright laws, alone that dictate the positive and negative effects of each, but rather the culture we create surrounding these technologies and laws. For this reason, I shifted my focus to the culture surrounding Disney. I have been exploring multiple sources on topics surrounding Walt Disney as a contributor to American culture, and how that has shaped our perception of the Disney Enterprise. Questions to further explore include: have we elevated Disney products to such a level that we allow Disney to bend copyright rules? Has Disney as a corporation become power-hungry- has what started as creativity become a greedy desire to stifle others who try to do the same thing Walt once did with Disney material? If this is the case, is it possible to loosen Disney’s hold and view on their material?
I chose to focus on the effect that strict copyright laws and regulation are going to have on our society in the future and the effect that is happening right now. At first I was exploring the area of disruptive innovation focusing on many companies Lessig touches on in his book, “Free Culture”, such as Kodak, cable TV, and in a more abstract sense the evolution of copyright law. This evolved throughout my research to seeing the impact of containing disruptive innovation is having on American society. As the U.S is moving away from the industrial society and more towards being a society dependent on intellectual information we need to find a middle ground in the regulation of intellectual property. Lessig discusses in his book “Free Culture” the idea of these regulations killing our cultural environment much in the way that DDT killed pests while not realizing the consequences that encompasses this approach (Lessig 130). I think Lessig says it best when discussing the protection of authors. “The point is that some of the ways in which we might protect authors will have unintended consequences for the cultural environment, much like DDT had for the natural environment” (Lessig 129).
This leads me to want to probe further into these consequences. The questions to be explored further are what are these consequences for society? Also relating back to my original thought what are the consequences for businesses if they choose to continue to support the regulation and the idea of not a free culture? Will this stagnation of culture hurt the entirety of the economy in the long run anyways?
In order to properly explore the topic of copyright and the different effects that these laws have on our society I thought it would be appropriate to explore the history and look into where copyright laws are headed. Sonny Bono was the major act in the late 90’s that propelled the terms of copyrights twenty more years. I have found that in the making of this act there existed little opposition. Corporations, such as Disney, who held valuable copyrights at that time successfully lobbied congressmen while the efforts of law professors and other academics, who believed Sonny Bono would be detrimental to our society, were simply letters to congressmen along with petitions. The Sonny Bono Act passed with little notice from the public. Next came the Eldred v. Ashcroft Supreme Court case in which Lessig, a strong proponent against copyright laws, served as Eldred’s lawyer. This case drew more attention, more support and a greater chance in defeating copyright laws than did Sonny Bono’s opposition however it came to a conclusion with Eldred losing in a 7-2 Supreme Court Vote.
This is the history of copyright but I believe the future of copyright laws may prove to be more interesting. With Sonny Bono’s extension only lasting a mere five more years, in 2019 corporations such as Disney will want their precious copyrights protected once again and for a longer amount of time. However, will the opposition stand stronger this time? With the Internet serving as a stronger force than ever people may band together in ways they weren’t able to in 1998 or in 2003. Cases such as SOPA and PIPA in which the Internet, including Wikipedia, Google and more ubiquitous sites, created a huge backlash and successfully stopped Congress from censoring the Internet make me believe that the Internet is capable of big things to come in the fight against copyright.
Moving forward, we aim to synthesize each of our individual findings into an overarching thesis to address our initial central question. We feel that each of our three focuses compliment one another in that we address the history, culture, consequences and future of copyright. As our research progresses and we answer more of our research questions outlined in this post we will produce a complete picture on the nature of how copyright law is affecting society and creativity in the U.S.
Below is a Tedtalk by Larry Lessig. It touches upon his arguments against strict regulations on intellectual property, including copy rights.
Below is the link to our additional research and project blog: