Time to move beyond ‘sharing’ and ‘stealing’ in the debate over content

Copyright stamp at laptop computer

In the debate over online content, Robert Levine is a rare honest broker. The former Wired journalist doesn’t parrot the fear-mongering of major copyright owners and nor does he embrace the tech utopias of the other side.

Speaking at the Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright 2012, Levine dressed-down the rhetorical excesses of the copyright industry and its opponents.

Levine called out the industry for invoking loaded terms like “stealing” and “child pornography” as a pretext to obtain draconian enforcement powers. But he also had choice words for those who frame any sort of copyright controls as inherently oppressive.

“It’s not stealing but it’s also not sharing,” said Levine. “There’s a difference between between curation and piracy. Megaupload is not curation, it’s massive illegal distribution.”

Levine’s words are likely to please no one involved — and that may be a good thing. As the recent partisan hullabaloo over SOPA showed, the copyright debate has been dominated by partisans of one side or the other.

Moving beyond the simplistic rhetoric of “sharing” and “stealing” may be the first step beyond this longtime impasse.

In practice, this means major content owners should stop trying to pass off legal sledgehammers as scalpels. To be taken seriously, they will also have argue the case for copyright controls without invoking crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, their critics will have to acknowledge that thugs like Megaupload’s Kim Dotcom aren’t paragons of civic expression and that some forms of intellectual property are acceptable.

For now, the ball is the court of the studios and other copyright owners who must overcome years of deep — and deserved — mistrust.  When they return to Congress (as surely they will) with a new bill to control content, let’s hope the debate has moved beyond stealing versus sharing.

Levine sets out more of his ideas in the book Free Ride. For another worthy discussion of the subject from a different angle, see Bill Patry’s How to Fix Copyright.

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