The Real Purpose of Copyright

posted Jul. 23, 2008

Though many copyright holders view copyright as an economic right that protects their ability to make money off content, the copyright law was actually established to promote the public good by encouraging the production and distribution of content.
The stated goal of copyright is to provide for the general welfare and promote the progress of science and useful arts by encouraging further creation. The rationale behind copyright is that granting creators temporary monopoly rights over their creations will encourage them to create more. The real goal of copyright is to ensure that new knowledge will be developed and circulated through society.
Underpinning much of the recent rhetoric by the content industry which views copyright as an unlimited economic right. This logic is misguided since the economic rights granted by copyright are just a byproduct of attempts to fulfill the societal need to increase creativity. Though our Government gave creators monopoly control over their creations, the monopoly on all works was only for a limited time.
Prior to the digital age a delicate balance had emerged between copyright holders on the one hand, and the general public on the other hand. Copyright holders had certain exclusive rights over their material, but those rights were tempered by access rights held by the public.
Copyright has always been just a temporary monopoly, and can only last for a limited time. When a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain.
The public domain is a diverse unregulated public space. Anyone can draw on material in the public domain for any purpose whatsoever. Unlike material under copyright, no one can charge you and I for using the public domain or prevent us from using public domain material in a way that might offend someone. A rich public domain has allowed creativity to flourish. Because Romeo and Juliet is in the public domain, we can have a wide variety of creative interpretations of this work, all without having to get permission from a copyright holder. The public domain is a critical public space that is an essential part of both education and creativity.