Tom Scott put the fear of the law into me.
I generally strive to keep clear of copyright infringement in my blog, even to the point of creating my own graphics…
…but my diligence drops at times in favor of convenience and a good joke. So this week’s project, in lieu of writing a new post, was to go through all the graphics in my blog and swap out any unlicensed imagery I’d picked up. I’m including a little list of my favorite creative-commons archives in this post for your benefit (scroll to the end), but also have some thoughts on copyright to chew in reaction to Tom Scott’s video.
“Ownership” of Ideas
One of my main bones to pick with copyright as a concept is the fallacy that you can “own” and idea. Objective ownership requires spatial definition; you need to be able to say where a thing starts and stops in order to control that thing and thus own it. Ideas are like air: you can’t grasp the scale of its size and motion, you can’t single out where any quantity of it stops or starts, you can’t prevent its movement across borders. When someone develops an idea and shares it with another person, there’s no way for the originator to then take that idea back. It’s released, it’s a thing that can only expand and disperse. Unless you make a point of strategically killing or brain-damaging those who receive the idea, there is no way to keep that idea “yours” in an objective sense (literally, in the object sense). So when I hear people arguing about the right to “own” their ideas, I immediately want to berate them on their presumption.
Countries cannot own atmosphere because they can’t quantify what “air” is theirs. But they can define ownership of air through the artificial borders they have measured on land. That atmosphere can move in and out of those borders freely, but within measurements relative to the land you can control access to the space that atmosphere occupies. Similarly, copyright artificially measures ideas through the media that communicates those ideas. Of course, are we really able to divorce ideas from their vehicles and argue that the vehicles themselves aren’t part of the ideas and how do you control them in that dimension … and you know what? I’m getting too philosophical about this. Other smarter people have written about the philosophy and ethics of copyright. My husband endorses Lawrence Lessig and his book Free Culture.
Anyhow, what I mean to get at is that the point of copyright should not be about protecting someone’s “ownership” of an idea. Copyright is a highly artificial thing that exists on the good will of people, including its manifestation in public law. It is not some objective right built into the universe. The ethic of copyright should not be based on ownership of ideas but rather the ethic that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Generating intellectual products is still a considerable labor and cost of time, and those who spend such should be compensated and those who could be enticed to spend such should be incentivized.
Take translation: a work of translation is largely derivative of pre-existing ideas and mental labor. The work you’re translating pre-existed your attention, as did the properties of the languages with which you are working. At most, your ideas can only be found in the little bridges built to carry the ideas across the gap in the languages. Sure, some of those gaps are rather big and some translators insert more of their own ideas into their translations, but by and large the translation does not constitute an original intellectual product of its translator –especially when it’s a translation of a religion’s core cultural archives. But translation is an intense form of mental labor, all the more so with the high stakes of religious works, and any translator or entity that undertook that labor should be compensated. To expect such labor to be undertook without incentive –and then further disseminated to an extent that you can access it– denies the laborers any recognition of their human needs to survive and thrive in their short lifetime.
And for the value of that labor to be rewarded through monetizing the media disseminating it, I think that’s fine.
Respecting copyright is one of those societal values that is always on the decline until the next lawsuit props it up again. Rather than an ethic we all understand and observe, it’s more of that thing we all resent and trespass upon until the next pirate gets strung up in court.
Something that Tom Scott’s video reminded me was just how draconian copyright law is. It is law that comes with such a huge scale of punishment, a law meant to be wielded by giants against giants. The problem is that we little folk are culturally acclimated to habits that haven’t been pruned and regulated by the attention of those legal parties most interested in protecting copyright. It’s really easy for us to develop errant knowledge of copyright and licensing. In my history, I come from three different communities that all teach bad habits, because in the past we were operating on too small a scale to really get disciplined for our transgressions.
First, there is my community of classical music. The majority of core material in classical music is in the public domain. Our tradition is old, and thankfully that means that we have a large archive of material with which to be creative. This seems good, but is has two drawbacks when brought next to copyright law. For one, we don’t study the technicalities of copyright closely because we don’t think we have to. For another, we get entitled to help ourselves to the products of culture because we’re used to our materials being free anyways. After all, why should I pay for the piece published in 1930 but not the one from 1918? Why can’t I just scan and copy the Prokofiev piano concerto? Isn’t this classical music? Isn’t all classical music free? Nope!!! We want to get paid for our performances, but we must be mindful that those payments must keep going upstream to our sheet music too. Often overlooked is that modern musicians largely acquire materials through modern editions from modern publishing houses. It’s no accident that most of my piano books have been edited and materially tweaked to some degree. There are pedagogical and historical reasons for this, for sure, but also a work that has been edited has a new layer of intellectual labor applied to it that potentially qualifies to be protected by copyright. Thus in many cases it isn’t strictly legal to hand your student a scanned copy of music that you know was originally written before copyright protection. The music is in public domain, but the editorial work done to it potentially isn’t. Despite that, teachers scan and copy all that time. Which brings me to my second community…
Education has terrible habits when it comes to learning and observing the technicalities of copyright. And for education I’d argue that this ignorance is some degree of wishful and willful. There is a heavy cognitive load already upon educators to create and find the materials that will reach their students. Most ground level teachers and educational institutions (not talking about you, universities) don’t have the financial liberty of being able to pay for all the copyrighted resources that would help them teach. So why not just…not pay for them? By and large, my education classes were fairly free with the ethic of “Need to teach a lesson on this specific topic? Look up what someone else is doing and
plagiarize borrow it for your own purposes.” Which, to be fair, we’re not talking about teachers taking someone else’ intellectual labor and profiting off it for money or credit. We’re talking about teachers looking to bottle whatever formulas work to lessen the already considerable cognitive load of working with classroom hauls of kids. And certain more risky or blatant infringements are reigned in. Most schools are pretty sure to educate their teachers whether they do or don’t hold the special license that would let substitutes turn to Disney daycare to survive an afternoon. Music ensemble teachers are taught to exercise legal awareness in how they handle their archives of music. Math teachers might scan and copy a workpage, but wouldn’t copy an entire workbook. Nonetheless, a lot of teachers harvest copyrighted materially liberally while believing that the nobility of their cause as educators protects them under “fair use.” It can, but I’ll say from my own experiences that what I’ve seen often doesn’t. And what these teachers model to their students is a sloppy disregard for copyright law.
My third community: churches. Most churches purchase a special license to print worship music through a company called Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). My tradition sings acapella and without a choir, so for us the license primarily covers distribution of sheet music and lyrics for corporate worship purposes, including any lyrics or notes projected onto the walls. However, there are various licenses sold through CCLI, and a lot of churches do not pay attention to which level they’ve signed up for. Things like recording your worship for internet streaming, playing music overhead at the start and end of the service, distributing performance music outside of the CCLI database, or copying music for non-worship purposes –these all require different licenses. But in the self-sense of being a benevolent, non-profit, loosely organized group of individuals, many churches assume the same denial of culpability as educators. I just cleaned out from my own church an archive of sheet music copied from performance repertoire outside our CCLI contract. When I laughed to others about destroying our “contraband” they would object that it was for education or that it wasn’t for profit. But it wasn’t paying the laborer for their hire either. (True, it rings falsely when it’s a corporation milking corrupt law. But give Ceasar what’s Ceasar’s…)
These different communities have been cultivating such assumptions and habits for a long time. To be fair, their habits predate copyright law, and certainly predate the mutated abomination of modern copyright law. Once the advent of those laws came, most instances were too small and scattered to be noticed. But now we have the internet, which further models and displays bad habits, and moreover documents those habits in public view.
And here is where Tom Scott’s video scared me. Now we’ve developed the AI to identify images and sounds. In the past, the returns for lawsuits against little individual transgressions weren’t worth the human effort of finding and pursuing. Now law corporations can just deploy AIs to do the hunting for them, and threaten suits en masse. The teachers, the churchgoers, the musicians whose bad habits have obliviously thrived under the security of being too small to see are now exposing themselves to the internet and the AIs now being set upon it. On the one hand, for the task that copyright is supposed to accomplish –recompensing the creator and incentivizing other creators– it’s good to have the law realized. But on the other hand, we’re going to start feeling the pain of laws that we let scale up far beyond the handle of little groups and individuals.
So take some time and learn how to observe copyright. It’s a grievous enough system of laws that if we all had to confront how bad it is, we might actually be motivated to do something about it. “Fair Use” and a certain amount of PR wariness is cushioning the friction right now, but I’m waiting for the wrong person to get hung in the gibbet. Maybe then we can get some meaningful decisions made on the topic that start shaping some sort of solid policy. It would be better if we could get those decisions made without having someone get hung in a gibbet before the internet, but our legislation at this point feel more reactive than proactive.
In the meantime, I’d encourage you to be responsible and try and keep out of the gibbet yourself. Find sources for images and video clips that you can license, create original content (and hey, if you have to use Paint, you’ll join the venerable likes of Allie Brosh), or utilize the creative commons! Much as I’d love to pay for professional work on my blog, I make $0/year for doing this. Err….
I make -$48/year doing this.
So if, like me, you don’t have a budget for media, here are my recommendations for services that can provide you with royalty-free images. If you use such a service, consider what ways you could patronage their donated labor to keep them going.
Unsplash: Hands-down the best resource for free, high-quality, beautiful photography. Unsplash definitely favors more… ad worthy? …neutral? content in its archive. The photos cater to serve as statement pieces that beautify your website. Stock photos. Even a gritty topic like “poverty” turns up aesthetically pleasing results. They aren’t going to have the more utilitarian, unartistic photos you need for news reporting or more defined data communication, and searches for general categories are more likely to get results than specifics. Their contributions relevant to my topics of the Quran are also a little scarce or indirect, but still, I use them plenty. Plus they provide a handy little HTML citation button to make crediting creators easier.
Flickr: A recent addition to my archives. I’d never paid attention to Flickr before, thinking it was just some photographic form of social media, but recently I realized it serves as a storefront for photographers. You can refine search results to those licensed for the creative commons. Be mindful of which rights each photographer chooses to retain for each photo (for example, some aren’t cool with you remixing their images), but there still is a large inventory to go through. There is a large range of quality in the archive, and some inappropriate content slips through the filter sometimes. Still, the scale of their archive is useful.
Wikimedia Commons: This resource is a real struggle to use. It’s search engine is not great, and the content is very bloated– which is to be expected, because it’s completely user-generated for an online user-generated encyclopedia. So labeling is inconsistent, quality is iffy, relevance is hard to measure, there are lots of scanned documents and such that bloat your search results. It’s almost better to search through Wikipedia’s articles to get your images. The one advantage key advantage to searching within Wikimedia is that is crosses language boundaries, so you might find a better image that’s not affiliated with the English entry for a subject. Not a bad thing when your searching for content outside the West’s cognizance and Arabic transliteration is inconsistent (I mean, try searching مَدَائِن صَالِح; no single search set in English would get you those results).
CC Search: A last chance to find something else in the creative commons. There’s a bit of overlap with Flickr and Wikimedia, since it mines from both, but the search engine turns up different results that might bring other material to the top. Their interface is nice and clean too, with markings that communicate creator content rights, and they provide an HTML citation option (though not a very pretty one).