Publishers and Copyright: Rights Without Duties?
10 Pages Posted: 17 May 2006
Date Written: May 16, 2006
What does the public want of publishers? As book buyers, they want ready access to cheap and varied books in their language of choice. They don't want to be told a book is out of stock or in some language they can't read, and that they have to trudge round to some public library or antiquarian bookstore, or do their own surreptitious translation. As writers and users, they want fair access to the world's literature to have and to hold, to enjoy, to make fun of if they want, to build on it, and also to benefit and let others benefit from their endeavours. As authors, they want fair contract terms and a fair cut of the profits; for with no book, there is no profit.
Publishers are in business to make money and nobody begrudges them a decent living. People do begrudge them an indecent living: i.e., if they use their power to keep prices high, and make access and reuse of books difficult. Copyright law should be a means (1) to encourage authors to produce and benefit, (2) to encourage publishers to publish and keep publishing and profiting, and (3) to give the public cheap prices and easy access. It does (1) - helping authors - modestly well; it does (2) - helping publishers - pretty well; whether or not it does (3) - giving the public what it wants - is more debatable. 1½ or 2 out of 3 is not good enough, especially since there's no point in helping authors and publishers if the public does not get what it needs and wants.
We need to rethink copyright law. Copyright should not just be about copyright owners' rights; it should also be about their duties. Historically, it used to be so: copyright owners used to owe duties to the public. Over time copyright law has been whittled down until it reads as if owners have just rights and no duties. They may have come to believe that; but the public hasn't.
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