Yesterday, the Guardian ran Cory Doctorow’s article, “Copyright law should distinguish between commercial and cultural uses.” He distinguishes between business-copyright and folk-copyright. The former is what happens when, for example, a record label negotiates the rights to a song for a particular TV advertisement. One lawyer calls another, writes a contract, money changes hands and the song “Baba O’Reilly” can get used to sell me auto insurance or something.
The idea of folk-copyright pertains to cultural use. The sort of pedestrian usage of a babysitter bringing DVDs to keep her charge occupied, making mix tapes, covering songs in a garage or a bar, or photocopying a comic strip for your cubicle wall.
Nobody calls the lawyers at United Feature Syndicate to ask if they can duplicate yesterday’s Dilbert for hanging the office fridge. What Doctorow advocates is a more descriptive rather than prescriptive copyright law. To describe the situation: on a folk/person-to-person scale, people are sharing copyright material freely. This use is often a cultural exchange (e.g. teenagers learning guitar by playing copyrighted riffs). Cultural exchange simply isn’t going to stop.
Also coming in yesterday is William Patry’s blog post on copyrighted jokes. It’s a thought-provoking angle on Doctorow’s article. It’s one thing to personally compile David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists and publish, distribute and sell them, making oneself a tidy profit. It seems to be another thing to imitate Robin Williams’s jokes on stage. And it’s a third thing to quote Family Guy to my girlfriend.
Among preachers, the practice of a folk-copyright (“cultural exchange”) is routine. In such an oral medium, I do not find offense at someone using an analogy that they lifted out of my preaching. Once a story, an illustration, a sermon is out into the oral sphere, it is free for the taking. Attribution is only a courtesy. This type of folk-copyright has been known in Christian preaching for centuries and serves as a helpful guide for contemporary policy.