Copyright and punishment

A panel of Internet entrepreneurs tackle property rights in the digital age

“I’m a copyright moderate, but I get painted as a radical!” moaned the author Rob Reid to a woman clutching a plastic cup of wine in the Housing Works bookshop in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday night. Reid founded the music-streaming service Rhapsody in 2001, sold it to MTV for $230 million six years later, and has just published a novel which, from the blurb, is like Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy but about copyright infringement. He was at Housing Works to host “Copyright and punishment in the digital age,” a panel discussion with three guest speakers, each considered radicals in a world where copyright has gone drastically wrong.

The central issue debated by the speakers—how copyright law established for physical goods can be applied in the digital realm—was further complicated by the nuances between various forms of media, from books, to music to film. “The ability to get out there is simply unprecedented,” explained Reid of a world where YouTube creates pop stars, Kindle gives authors instant access to readers, and Internet entrepreneurs can become billionaires. The problem is that copyright law has not yet evolved to match.

“It’s like using a cheese grater to shave your face,” said Ken Fisher, a founder of the tech news website ArsTechnica. “You can just about do it, but it doesn’t look great.”

The first panelist to speak, Drew Curtis, gave an abbreviated version of his 10-minute TED talk on patent trolls, which essentially required him to give the whole talk at double speed. Breathlessly, Curtis explained that if your website gets sued by a faceless company accusing you of stealing their patented idea, your options are limited. Settle, as Curtis was tempted to do when his site,, got hit by the trolls in 2010, and you risk being targeted by other patent trolls hoping to make a quick buck. Fight it, as Curtis decided to do, and you have a thankless months of expensive legal proceedings ahead of you to prove your innocence. “It’s easier to get out of a murder charge than it is a patent infringement,” he said.

Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, said that’s because “we’re still thinking about digital things same way we thought about physical things.” According to Martin, that doesn’t work in the legal system and it doesn’t work in the markets. He explained that in the digital realm, the more of your product you give away, the more money you make. But to protect good ideas, as well as to sell them online, we need to start thinking completely differently about copyright.

Perhaps the most radical rethinking of intellectual property came from Fisher, of ArsTechnica. In his theory, humans have been creating user-generated content since language began. He dubbed Luke’s Gospel a “blog post” of various aggregated sources, and called out Genesis, the first book in the Bible, for its inconsistencies (two creation stories, two floods), which he blamed on “transformative adaptation” of the stories as they were passed around. “Today, we are able to maximize our collaborative and creative abilities like never before,” said Fisher. “But our laws have never been more restrictive.”

Afterwards, the four Internet entrepreneurs took questions and discussed the hopelessness of the situation. “International property right law, by which I mean patents and copyright, is broken,” said Reid. “It was never designed to do what it is being asked to do.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,