How to Fix Copyright

Patry is senior copyright counsel at Google, and despite the upfront disclaimer, this book defines a vision of copyright that clearly benefits the world’s biggest search engine. That bias aside, the vision is clear-headed, practical, and scientific—quite refreshing in light of the current SOPA/PIPA frothing-at-the-mouth coming from other corners. A solid complement to Hyde’s Common as Air.

Reading notes

Making copies

What it means to make a copy:

The most damaging consequence of the movement to turn culture into private property is the largely successful change in attitude toward creativity and copying. Creative people are supposedly those who do not copy or imitate others. As we just saw, this is false; creative people must copy and must imitate others. Treating transformative copying as theft, as laziness, or as being non-creative is counter to human nature. All learning is social; copying is an essential form of social learning. Our copyright laws must be changed to reflect this fact.

Patry, How to Fix Copyright, page 99

Emphasis mine; this is perhaps the most distressing part of the conversations around SOPA and PIPA and similar bills put forth by the entertainment industry. It is inconceivable that a group of people whose primary livelihood depends on remakes could misunderstand this most basic element of creativity. More likely that they recognize the value that such a ruling could infer on their own back catalog. Put another way: copying in order to make anew is not lazy. But relying on revenue from copies of your own work most certainly is.


Patry digs into the evidence about copyright renewals and uncovers what every honest book publisher already knew:

The failure to renew was an empirical, market signal about the value that copyright owners themselves placed on copyright. The renewal rates also showed a consistent difference in renewal rates for classes of works. The lowest renewal rates (0.4 percent) were for technical drawings, lectures, sermons, and other oral works. The highest renewal rate was for motion pictures (74 percent). Music was 48 percent and books only 7 percent. Our current one-size-fits-all approach ignores this significant data about how copyright owners have themselves valued copyright. Based on this evidence, the correct term of copyright should vary depending on the type of material being protected, with books getting a shorter term than motion pictures.

Patry, How to Fix Copyright, page 205

Even with a term of copyright of only fourteen years (the original term in the States), most books would not be renewed, because most books are no longer worth much after that period of time. Failing to let them come into the public domain only makes them inaccessible—that is, invisible. A book can have an immense cultural value for centuries past the point at which it’s already anemic financial value has passed. The obscene copyright term now in place serves no financial gain, and yet manages to rob us nonetheless.