Stop the Secrecy

“Cobweb Chains” or Creative Commons: Who do copyright laws really protect?

Wed, 10/15/2014 - 16:58 -- Eva Prkachin

by Reilly Yeo

A lot can happen in 14 years. In that amount of time, we go from kindergarten to college age. We’ve lived just over 14 years since the turn of this millennia, and the Y2K scare probably feels like a distant memory.

Information wants to be free – so it makes sense that when the first monopoly rights to information and knowledge were granted by the 1710 Statute of Anne (the world’s first copyright law) they lasted for a reasonable 14 years. When the booksellers and publishers -- the Big Media entities of the day -- tried to extend their exclusive rights beyond 14 years, the English House of Lords firmly rejected them.

Lawyer and judge Lord Camden declared that a perpetual copyright would bind up knowledge and science in “cobweb chains,” and would turn the public into the “slaves” of publishers and copyright holders.

We’re a far cry away from the Statute of Anne, also called an “Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” Today, copyright terms last not just for 14 years, and not even just until the author or creator’s death, but well beyond it – and a secretive trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) seeks to extend that even further in many countries, by giving the copyright holders a 70-year monopoly after the creator’s death.

This is our first clue that copyright these days is not at all about protecting artists and creators, or even encouraging learning. At the same time, when we approach copyright, we need to take the concerns that creators have with compensation in the digital age very seriously.

These concerns about how making art co-exists with making a living are much older even than the Statute of Anne – they precede the digital age, which has created both new opportunities, and new challenges.

This is why we’ve rallied Internet users in 155 countries around the world to help us set a common-sense agenda for copyright, as well as asked these Internet users to tell us how they think artists should be respected in the digital age – and the thousands of people who participated in our crowdsourcing process overwhelmingly agree that artists deserve a better deal.

Over 92% of people who responded to our survey wanted to see recording artists get more than half of the revenue from the works they create, and 67% would like to see these artists get at least three-quarters of the revenue.

For comparison, today a recording artist gets just 11% of the revenue from sales of their music in CD format. And this is in the best-case scenario – when they’ve managed to already pay off their debt to the record company. Artists, especially emerging artists, take most of the risk, and get a small fraction of the reward.

We must ensure that artists, creators, and regular Internet users don’t become disconnected from the possibility of changing this system, in part by using the open Internet to create greater grassroots financing and distribution of cultural and knowledge production.

Alarmingly, leaked drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would push to make disconnection from the Internet more common, with proposed rules where users lose the right to an Internet connection after (knowing or unknowing) copyright infringements. Given the wide scope of things under copyright today (remember - the term length has more than quadrupled since copyright law was introduced) unwitting infringement can be as simple as sharing a recipe on a blog.

When artists support a Big-Media-dominated system that censors and controls online content production, everyone loses. The same media conglomerates who have created winner-take-all economies dominated by a few big celebrities today also set the agenda for copyright laws.

In order to protect their outdated business models, these conglomerates are using copyright law to diminish the public domain of works that are available for artists to freely remix, reuse and reference. They’re also blocking access to Creative Commons-licensed works, and other alternative distribution mechanisms that seek to harness the potential of the open Internet for easier sharing and connection to fans.

Mickey Mouse may be protected, but the average artist won’t be when, for example, Warner Brothers uses a perverse approach to copyright law to demand we pay royalties for using the song “Happy Birthday.”

We need to rally Internet users behind a set of common principles, starting with respect for artists and prioritizing free expression.

When we see how copyright laws are currently being made around the world, we can immediately recognize that we need to stand up for a third principle: embracing democratic processes.

Moderate copyright laws in many countries are under threat from the TPP - which has been negotiated in frighteningly anti-democratic ways. With negotiating texts that are kept secret even from our democratically elected representatives, we only know what we know about the TPP from leaked drafts. And what we know is cause for global alarm bells - this is why Internet users in 155 countries around the world have joined us in creating an agenda for free expression that rejects censorship and revives democracy.

If we can free knowledge and culture from the “cobweb chains” of Big Media conglomerates, we can start to unlock the potential of the open Internet to democratize our politics, our economy, and our society. By crowdsourcing and advocating for citizen-driven visions of copyright that respect artists, we can go from being the potential slaves of the Big Media conglomerates, to the founding ancestors of a diverse and vibrant global digital commons.

Reilly Yeo is Community Engagement Specialist with, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.