posted Jul 19, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for What Is An Expression?. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

This subsection is not a substitute for gathering a real understanding of copyright. It is a good idea to learn more about this on your own. There are many good resources online, many targeted at non-lawyers. I strongly advise that if you find these issues interesting, that you take the time to learn more on your own. A Google search on the string "Copyright FAQ" turns up ten excellent resources on the front page as of this writing.

But so that we are all on the same page, including any possible misconceptions arising from my non-lawyer nature, let's extremely briefly review the concepts behind copyrights: Copyright's root concept is "expression". From the Legal Dictionary:

1. an act, process, or instance of representing or conveying in words or some other medium: "speech" 2. a mode or means of expressing an idea, opinion, or thought

Copyright protects expressions and nothing else. If you "express" an idea in an essay, you own the expression, but you do not own the idea. You can take anything in this essay, re-express it in your own words, and you will have an "expression" that is every bit as much protected as the one you are reading. It is considered polite to credit the idea, but there is nothing in copyright law that enforces that. There is stuff that covers the use of expressions; if you directly quote this essay, then copyright law constrains what you can do without my permission.

What you can do without my permission is called "fair use". You can quote short snippets for the purpose of commentary, but those quotes must be the minimum necessary for the commentary, and not constitute a large portion of a work. You could not re-publish this essay without my permission with commentary for every paragraph, because that would be a large portion of the work, and thus not be fair use. There are some other things that are "fair use" too, though they aren't as encompassing as many people think they are.

Copyright law is concerned entirely with expressions, how people use them to create other expressions, and how various rights and privileges flow through various economic transactions. The ins and outs of copyright are complex, and in order to truly understand what I am saying here, you really ought to learn more for yourself. But these are the basics: there are expressions, there are protections, and there are some balancing things that people can do without the permission of a copyright holder, mostly for the purposes of free speech.

The other important thing about copyright many people miss is that the protections are not atomic, in the original sense of "indivisible". You can give permission for certain things but not others, which is to say just because you have permission to own a certain expression does not legally mean that you have the right to do whatever you want with it, like copying and re-distributing it. (You may feel you have the moral or ethical right, but that's quite different.) If "Possession is nine-tenths of the law", this is part of the other tenth, where physical ownership of an expression is not very meaningful. Owning a copy of Microsoft Office does not entitle you to make as many copies as you like and sell them to others. Many copyright novices often argue on the grounds that physical ownership confers full rights to them, and they are wrong. (A much, much smaller group of people argue that it should confer full rights, which is a different point entirely.) The "first sale" doctrine does provide certain guidelines on what restrictions can be made on customers; again, consult better resources than this on the first sale doctrine.

Now, you might be wondering why I feel I can just tell you to go look up "first sale" and "fair use" and generally gloss over the details of copyright, when it seems like the details would be important to me. The entire point of this essay is to examine communication issues, and an important part of that is to examine the the historical solutions to these problems. The reason I feel justified in waving away the details of copyright law is that I do not intend to attack "copyright law"; instead, as the chapter title implies I will strike at the concept of "expression", which is the foundation of copyright. With "expression" destroyed, all the rest of copyright law crumbles.

Again, lest you think this simply bombastic rhetoric with little application in the real world, one does not need to look hard to see very real strain in copyright law, both in the various issues covered in previous chapters and in more issues to be covered in chapters to come. Is it really such an extreme claim that the strains come from a fundamental mismatch of the expression doctrine with the real world, rather then merely some transient issues that we can make go away with a couple of laws?

Remember, there's nothing holy about our current system. As demonstrated in chapter 2, as well as the system worked, from top to bottom the copyright system is a system of expedience and purely local targeting. If you need a moment to prepare yourself for the idea that we need to destroy the entire system, I'd understand.


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