Copyright is, at its simplest form, the method by which creators are paid for their work. It is a registration of an intellectual property (IP). It says “the creator has the right to charge, or not to charge, money for you to use this”. It’s not a form of censorship (and no court would rightfully allow someone to use copyright as a form of censorship). It’s not meant to be a method of refusing access to creative or IP products. Copyright is different from trademarking. A copyright is not a registered trademark.
It gives the creator of an IP the exclusive rights of distribution and use. Most countries or regions have a length of time for which copyright applies, generally between 50 and 100 years after the death of the creator. Copyright was originally a response to the unauthorized copying of texts in the 18th century; printers were a little unscrupulous in reproducing works and not paying the authors for the copies they (the printers) sold. The original copyright laws from Great Britain in the 1700s outline the authors’ right to be paid for their work, and it talks about making unauthorized copies. That’s important.
As a writer (and an erstwhile VERY amateur artist, fibre artist, and musician), it’s my right to tell you whether you can or can not reproduce or use my work. I grant a publisher the right to distribute my work when my book is accepted for publication, and as part of that agreement, I get paid a portion of the sales of that book. My publisher will obtain regional rights (although it’s not uncommon for publishers to negotiate for international rights) for distribution, which means they sell my book on my behalf. They arrange for the physical (or the digital) copies of my book to be stored and shipped to buyers within the region. There is a whole other can of worms involved with international distribution of physical products, and many publishers purchase distribution/reprint rights for foreign titles in their markets (so a German publisher may contact my publisher to obtain printing and distribution rights for the German translation of my book, which will of course be the most important title they ever produce).
If I self-publish my book, I get to determine where to store my books, which retailers to contact, which distributors can carry my books, how to market my books, and I get to do all the order fulfillment. It also means I have the option to retain 100% of the wholesale price for each book sold (I don’t have to split that revenue with a producer). There are a whole bunch of pros and cons to the different kinds of publishing, but that’s really not what I’m wanting to talk about.
Historically, there has been a tendency of the “learned classes” (which, up until the mid-20th century was usually also almost exclusively the ‘moneyed classes’) to ‘hoard’ knowledge, and to keep it away from the filthy, uneducated masses. Prior to the 20th century, education was really only available to the privileged who could afford it (there really wasn’t a lot of state-subsidized education, so if you came from a working class family, chances are good neither you nor your children received any sort of formalized education), and a large, large portion of the people were illiterate. There are some opponents of copyright who claim that copyright is a means of denying people access to art and creative products.
I mean, that’s just wrong.
Copyright does not need to be registered; it automatically resides with the creator of a work. If there were ever a case where the ownership of an IP came into question, it becomes helpful to have proof of when and where the IP was created, but you don’t need to register your intellectual properties with any agency; as soon as that IP is put down in a fixed medium, copyright has been established. Now there are discussions in place about whether digital products count as “fixed” media. Oh, and you can’t copyright ideas. You also can’t copyright information. Which is to say, facts. If I am a famous scientist who discovers that light is actually made of marmalade, I cannot copyright that information. On the other hand, if I am a famous scientist who *invents* a tablet that makes kale have the texture and taste of poutine, I can copyright the formula for that tablet.
A *trademark* needs to be registered. A trademark is a sign or symbol or short phrase belonging to an individual, a business, or a corporation that is applied to products and which identifies the product as being the property of the trademark owner. You can not trademark book titles (you can’t copyright them either), but you can register a trademark for a logo or a catch phrase (“Just Do It”). An interesting factoid here is that the name “Tarzan” was registered as a trademark by the author of the books in which that character first appeared (that’d be Edgar Burroughs). After Burroughs’ copyright expired, Burroughs’ company was able to control the use of the name and image of “Tarzan” for what are now called “derivative works”. Check out the Edgar Rice Burroughs site for a *really* good example of how a fairly shrewd writer was able to exploit Trademark legislation to his own benefit.
And here’s another thing. Copyright is about *original* works. Not the uniqueness of a work. If I write a book about a boy who goes to a boarding school for people with magical talents, and I can prove my work is original, and that I did not in any way copy it from any other author, my work can be practically the same as another author’s, but I can still retain copyright for my work. Unless I actually copied it. Then it is incumbent upon the person from whom I ripped off my “wizard boy” story to prove that I knew of their work and knowingly copied it.
I exercise my copyright every time I grant permission to someone to reprint (or repost) one of my blog posts.
Unscrupulous producers may demand ridiculous fees for the use of copyrighted material. From what I understand, this happened a lot in the recording industry in the latter part of the 20th century. I have heard horror stories of publishers refusing to allow copyright to revert to an author after their book is out of print. There are plenty of stories of people abusing copyright, and there are laws on the books in most jurisdictions that cover what’s called “fair use” (and in SOME jurisdictions, the government’s recent “fair use” legislation has basically nearly eroded a producer’s ability to ensure that they are able to pay artists for the use of the artist’s work (I’m looking at YOU, Canada).) which outline how much of a produced (published, recorded, etc) work you are legally able to copy before you have to pay for the use of the work.
So essentially, if gasoline were an intellectual property, certain institutions would be able to use as much gasoline as they wanted, without having to pay for it under the ridiculously unfair ‘fair use’ legislation we have now in Canada. Regular people like you and me would still have to pay for our gasoline, of course. And our prices might go up because it costs the refineries more to produce gasoline if they’re not getting paid by big institutions for the use of their product.
Some folks say that copyright does not benefit society or that it somehow stifles creativity. I readily admit, I don’t understand the latter argument. As to the former, I have ZERO qualms with writers and artists being paid for their work. Zero. If the only purpose of a publisher is to ensure that their books are available for sale, and that the writers get paid, that’s a pretty awesome purpose, and I will never advocate for the eradication of copyright until artists can make a living wage from their art.
There is another argument against copyright that advocates for freedom of information. This one I agree with. This is why we have libraries. Libraries pay for content from producers, publishers, etc., and provide free access to information. But *access to information* is not the same as information. Peer-to-peer file sharing makes freedom of information a very real thing. Many people don’t have any qualms about engaging in a little civil disobedience to download copyright-protected products on peer-to-peer networks. Why should you pay big studios any more than they already pull in at the box office or on network television? How much of that money gets back to the actors, and beyond that, the writers?
I think a lot of that kind of argument is based on the way certain industries used to work (the corruption that was systemic in the recording industry in the mid-late 20th century is fairly well known, and stories of recording artists and performers and musicians being ripped off wholly by their recording labels are not difficult to find).
Some evidence supports the theory that writers, in particular, were better off individually before the Berne Convention (wherein copyright laws were established internationally in the 1800s), and that more books were “published”. I put published in quotes because I don’t know if there is a delineation made between publishing and printing. There is other evidence that supports the theory that writers, in particular, are better off individually *since* the Berne Convention because the law enshrines our right to be paid for our work. I don’t know the answer here. I know that I benefit personally from copyright payments (thank you, Access Copyright!) but you can’t take one person’s experience as FACT. (You actually can’t.)
For further reading, I encourage you to read up on the opposition to copyright entry on Wikipedia, and follow some of the links they provide. Take note in that entry who is quoted as being a critic of opposition to copyright. I also encourage you to read the entry on the philosophy of copyright (also on Wikipedia). There are moral issues at play, legal issues, and issues surrounding the public good. I am a fan of copyright, because it is one way, and currently in my opinion the best way, to ensure artists are paid for their work.