In 1998, the US Congress extended the duration of copyright protection by 20 years. The author of the law actually wanted the term of copyright to last forever (which, however, would violate the US Constitution). Congress argued that strengthening the copyright system served economic growth, culture, and creativity.
At that time, an alternative idea, according to which there was value to be found in open copyright laws, was gaining traction chiefly among computer programmers involved in the so called free software movement. Licenses formulated for their use by Richard Stallman guaranteed that users were free to use, copy, alter, and further distribute the software.
A year later, publisher Eric Eldred challenged the constitutionality of the copyright extension act in court. Eldred’s lawyer was Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and expert on internet law. During the trial (which Eldred eventually lost), it became clear that stopping the legislative trend towards making the copyright system more restrictive would be impossible.
At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals, authors, and activists arrived at conclusions opposite those of Congress – that a copyright system based on the ever more strongly enforced principle of “all rights reserved” didn’t serve culture. In late 2002, a group led by Lessig and inspired by the free software movement created an alternative: voluntary licences that made sharing intellectual property possible. The project was called Creative Commons and guaranteeing the free circulation of cultural works and the freedom to use the products of a common cultural heritage became its main goal. In other words, to use a term suggested by Lessig, the goal was “free culture”.
The idea of “free culture” stresses the notion that intellectual property laws are not just the domain of nuance-loving lawyers, but an issue that should concern all of us. Cultural innovation has always been driven by borrowing (the saying that good artists copy while great ones steal has been attributed to various great 20th-century artists, from Eliot, through Stravinsky, to Picasso). Remixing, in its various versions, is a practice that goes back at least several decades (beginning with the early 20th-century avant-garde). What is new is the recognition that copyright law and digital technologies are two key factors that are capable of both opening and closing culture.
Today, the free culture movement is backed by a broad coalition ranging from law professors to cultural pirates and a number of organizations. What they all share is an intuition codified in the Creative Commons licenses: the sense that creativity flourishes on the foundations of existing culture; that new culture – with its liberating potential – is shaped by digital technologies; and that unless the legal system is overhauled, it will freeze culture in the analog 20th century, squandering the opportunities offered to authors (and, by extension, to all of us) by computers connected to the internet.
Those unconvinced about the idea of openness, who still believe in the idea of copyright, should conduct a simple mental experiment: what would Polish culture look like if Mickiewicz’s Dziady were not, due to eternal copyright, a freely available element of the common heritage? If the law continues to be changed at the bidding of those for whom culture is but a product, such questions will cease to be abstract and become part of our daily reality.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak