Drowning or Waving

I recently contributed to a public debate titled Copyright is Dead, Long Live the Pirates, a provocative title I’m sure you’ll agree.

The topic though got me thinking about copyright at its most basic level: although copyright law is about more than copying, the notion of the copy is absolutely central to the disruption of traditional copyright at the hands of digital media.


Copyright was created with the medium of print in mind and to create a print copy of an existing work takes dedication, resources, time, and money. Copyright is an effective system in the physical world because, for an audience, the path of least resistance to obtaining a creative work is to buy it. Under a system predicated on physical objects, readers buy books and some of that money reaches writers. It’s anything but perfect, but broadly speaking it kind of works.

Things are very different in the networked world of ones and zeros.

One small example: the act of sending an email attachment is one of the most a humble intenet tasks. What you might not realise is that the process results in at least six complete copies of the attachment spread across the sender’s and receiver’s computers. This doesn’t acknowledge that many of us access email on a number of devices (each device needs a new copy), or that our devices are (or at least should be) backed up regularly (more copies). The transfer of one file from one person to another results in a bloom of copies that proliferate around the world.

Copying is essential to a functioning internet, a fact which feeds into a fundamental feature of digital media that began long before even personal computing.

Today, making a copy of any given set of data is not just easy; it’s as natural and as unconscious as taking a breath. In such an environment, the trading of unauthorised copies within the audience has become just as natural. In this environment, making a copy has become the path of least resistance.

You cannot pick up a set of rules that govern property in the physical world and dump them, stretch them, squash them, grind them into the digital environment. This is the kind of thinking that results in the overreach of rights holders: placing artificial geoblocks to content, placing punitive restrictions on how content can be stored and accessed (restrictions that have no parallel in the physical world), treating an audience as criminals first and readers/listeners/fans second. Audiences are not dumb. They know there’s a difference between shoplifting and unauthorised copying, even if they accept both are wrong (some do not). They know digital media is fundamentally different to physical media. And although there’s not a lot of love for “copyright holders”, the broad community regularly expresses support for artists, authors, and other creative people.

The question of whether copyright is drowning or waving is beside the point, traditional copyright never had a chance in the digital world. Maybe it’s time we stop pretending things haven’t changed.

The debate was part of the IQ2 debate series hosted by the St James Ethics Centre and the Wheeler Centre. Here's a link to the full debate hosted at the ABC program, Big Ideas