Freedom of Expression?

In all honesty, I love the fact that I can access newspaper and magazine articles for free online.  Who wouldn't? And if all books and music were free too, all the better, right? Not necessarily.  While free content appeals to the consumer, doesn't it also devalue the work of the author and contradict the "selling of goods and services" model that drives our economy, empowers entrepreneurship and stimulates innovation? 

I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal recently by L. Gordon Crovitz called "A Writer's Tale," and it talks about author Mark Helprin and his perspective on copyrights.  As Helperin pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2007, "the Constitution states unambiguously that Congress shall have the power 'to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.'"  This means that authors' copyrights only last for so long (70 years) before they expire.  So, while parents can pass the assets of a family business down to their kids for infinite generations, authors' rights to their intellectual property expire after 70 years. 

Now that the Internet has changed the way we access information, this copyright battle has taken a new form: online piracy.  As Saul Hansell of the New York Times wrote last week, "Online piracy isn’t just a problem for music companies; it hurts newspapers and magazines as well. News organizations are now trying to do something about the many Web sites that simply copy articles and paste them into their own pages."  Saul wrote about a start-up called Attributor that has proposed an automated system that would give newspapers a way to share in the advertising revenue from small sites that copy their articles.  So while the Internet is fairly new in the grand scheme of things, the copyright issue reaches back to the days of the Constitution, and it's an issue that won't go away. 

As we continue to create new ways to share information (very important) we need to set ground rules for access to this information (also important) so that content creators remain inspired, and so the content itself does not lose its appeal and aura of importance.  Think about it: would the newest book in the Harry Potter or Twighlight series feel as special in your hands if you didn't have to offer something in exchange for it, or if there were infinite copies?  Likewise, would the hardcover copies of literary classics like Pride and Prejudice or Uncle Tom's Cabin occupy a special place on your bookshelf if you could just get them anywhere, any time? As both Mark Helprin and L. Gordon Crovitz point out, we need to strike a balance between easy access and free access. 

The question remains, how do we do it? What kind of system will honor an author's rights to individual content without discouraging consumers from paying to access it? I welcome your thoughts.

Contributed by Susan Wise.  Follow her @swise