Fifty Shades Of Copyright Law

As I sat down to contemplate the future of copyright law, I felt the need to cue Fifty Shade of Grey OST in the backdrop. It’s ironical that the said work is also an example of copyright infringement (or not, it’s debatable). The Fifty Shades Trilogy was originally written as a Twilight fan-fiction.  Fan-fiction stories are written by fans of the original story, using various story lines, characters and settings. Even though clear parallels can be drawn between the two books, the copyright law holds in James’ favour, calling it a ‘Derivative work’ rather than outright copyright infringement. See, that’s the nature of copyright—it is fifty kinds of gray.

Before anyone takes a stance on copyright law, it’s prudent to not only look at the things as they are now, but to also examine why this law came into existence.  When the Statute of Anne was passed in 1710, it was concerned with the reading public, the continued production of useful literature, and the advancement and spread of education. It was all about text. Until a few decades later it was modified to cover works, independent of any medium— cinema, gramophone, radio, and so forth. A few decades on and the copyright was steered in a completely new direction–the Internet—for regulating access to tools in a way much more arbitrary than anyone in the pre-digital age could have imagined.

This change is the result of the fast changing scenario where previously tangible mediums of delivery have merged in to one singular intangible medium of the Internet. This is a classic case of ‘one size doesn’t fit all’. It is simpler to establish copyright laws when dealing with ideas in conjunction with physical forms—a book, or a CD, or a piece of art. Copyright infringement or the act of ‘copying’ is easier to establish when dealing with identifiable mediums. This differentiation becomes more and more obscure when the very idea of using a networked computer is based on creating copies, lots and lots of them.

So where is copyright law headed? Copyright law, right now, is a simple idea that is ambiguous in application. It needs to be the other way around. The law needs to be far reaching in its coverage but easier in application. The line, between what is infringement and what is not, should be explicit. That’s just one aspect of it. There’s more.

We live in a digital age where we’re more or less getting conditioned to having instant gratification. The world has shrunk to the size of your computer screen and anything that you may ever want is available for a price on the Internet. We want things fast and we want them now. The entire premise behind Google Books was to make the collective knowledge base searchable and readable within minutes, or at least that’s what they told us. But Google’s intentions are non-issue here. We need to self-examine ourselves and the way we consume information today.

Extensive piracy of copyrighted material not only throws light on the inherent problems of the copyright law, but also our psychology, where we seemed to have developed a sense of entitlement. We expect more and more things to be free—books, music, movies, research, software, etc. We are caught in the web of conspicuous consumerism without having to risk anything in return. Sometimes we do it knowingly (See Oatmeal’s comic strip), sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes under pretext of ‘fair use’. There is more than one way to skin a fish. Sigh.

On the other side, it’s true that piracy hurts the content creators, but not entirely. Singers, authors, artists have been known to use the free-for-all Internet to promote their works. ‘Go viral’ is the motto in the age where eyeballs mean everything. The bone of contention here seems to be money.

Yes, the relationship between creativity and commerce is tenuous, but not mutually exclusive. As things stand right now, consumers and creativity are in a meeting place. But the commerce is missing. There is no use yelling at the pirates and freeloaders, because the need and the means to fill that need already exist. If a viable platform to access these works doesn’t show up, people have no qualms about turning to a bit of a pirate themselves, because the manifestation of stealing a real object is categorically missing here. Yes, it’s stealing, but you’ll forgive yourself.

It’s hard to imagine a world without intellectual property protection. Having said that, there is a clear need to evolve into something more flexible, agile and enforceable, considering how people consume information and pay it forward. Shifting the focus from pirates, I feel even the publishers need to re-evaluate their approach and work towards creating a more meaningful user experience to gain competitive edge, making the copyright redundant anyway. The resulting experience will leverage on content quality, open partnerships and co-op arrangements across various platforms to offer the end-user a product that they will be compelled to buy, rather than use illegally. In the fast evolving digital age, we need to channel the flow of information, not create more boundaries.

Taking a leaf out of Rumi’s books, copyright law needs to go beyond the antiquated idea of right and wrong and meet the consumers in a place where knowledge meets economy, for the betterment of the world as a whole.

Anumeha Gokhale

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