Cell Phones, Copyright, and Culture! Oh My!

Last month I read an article in the NYTimes, “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?” by Nick Bilton, which has stayed on my mind and I continue to ponder.   Nick Bilton describes how he and his wife are sitting in a bookstore, taking pictures from books on interior design that they want to share with their contractor.  He later wondered if he had done anything wrong.

The article addresses copyright and fair use, but it also got me thinking about the bigger picture (pun intended) in a day and age where library budgets are being slashed and bookstores are closing their doors.  It also has to go beyond the economics of copyright and fair use, as I think we also need to think seriously about what ramifications there may be based on the value we as a society place on information, intellectual property and creativity.

As a librarian, I am all in favor of all kinds of information being easily and readily accessible.  I also want to respect the rights (and financial well-being) of creators of these information and works.  Additionally,  I also want to see creativity and innovation grow.  However, copyright itself seems to have become a concept of extremes, where copyright either needs to be tightened and much more restrictive or it should be loosened and overly accessible (i.e. free for all).  Copyright is a very gray area though, one that seems to just cause more confusion.  In many ways, this confusion seems to have lead to indifference, granted not intentional indifference.

It’s not just kids and students sharing digital content of all kinds that are unaware of these rights, but as seen from the NYTimes article, even those who are deeply ingrained in the information business are unclear as to what is right and what is wrong.  Last year, an article in a cooking magazine created an Internet meme, with an editor of the magazine responding that “the web is considered ‘public domain’“.   Nick Bilton comments in his article, “It’s not as if we had destroyed anything: We didn’t rip out any pages.”  These attitudes of indifference and uncertainty cannot be an excuse for the behavior, but rather they illustrate that more needs to be done not only to understand copyright, but to ensure that copyright acts as a mechanism to protect not only the creator of the work, but also looks at the economic and cultural impact of these works.

If copyright becomes too limiting, then education, creativity and innovation can be stifled.  On the other hand, enforcement of copyright, or the lack thereof, especially in today’s digital age, can also inhibit creativity and innovation.  Why create something if that creation cannot be protected and it can be given away freely?  Free isn’t always free; often there are hidden costs.  The article ends with a quote, “By the time this [the economic repercussions of people taking pictures of books with the phone’s camera] becomes an issue, we might not even have bookstores anymore.”  It’s these kind of hidden costs that have me worried and that I think we need to become more aware of.

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