Copyright issues & the everyman circa 1950-1980?
August 6, 2008 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Please aid my preparations to meet with my elected representative! What uses or abuses of copyrighted materials were common in the '50s, '60s & '70s? All insights welcome.

I'm meeting with my Member of Parliament soon to discuss the pending changes to Canada's copyright legislation. (Interested parties can find lots of information about Bill C-61 out there, I don't want to politicize this thread by providing links which may present a bias.)

Much like modern copyright laws in any western nation, the pending bill will explicitly define how individuals can access, use & distribute any copyrighted materials, particularly digital ones.

My MP is ~60 years old and I'm 28. In case a generation gap is an issue, I want to be better able to relate to his generation's take on things. When he was my age, what kinds of things were normal for him in the same way that iTunes and BitTorrent and ringtones and blogs are to me?

What kinds of legal/technical violations of copyright law were prevalent in previous decades and what was your/public perception like?

Any information or anecdotes from a cultural, social, educational or economic perspective would be terrific.
posted by chudmonkey to Society & Culture (6 answers total)
He was your age in the late 1970s, so he's not from the stone age. During his 30s, 40s and 50s he has watched the entire development of personal computers and the internet. He probably has a cell phone. So one item of advice is not to go in assuming there's a gap.

In his "day", at least in the US and I assume Canada, there were issues around photocopying copyrighted material, such as for use in classrooms. Also, tape copies of phonograph records were floating around. These were not big public issues, but they were issues to publishers, and schools and colleges wrestled with the photocopying problem.
posted by beagle at 10:16 AM on August 6, 2008

beagle: Just like my MP is aware of computers and the internet, I'm aware of record players and photocopiers. Can you share any details about the matters you refer to that would help me understand the issues and public perceptions?
posted by chudmonkey at 10:31 AM on August 6, 2008

When I was a kid (I'm 40), I can remember it being against the rules to use the library photocopier for copying books (according to the sign right above the copy machine). It wasn't really made clear that copying a couple pages for a particular use was ok. This was in the U.S. by the way.

However, there was a cost to making copies, both economically and effort wise. Thus, even with access to free copying, it was still a pain in the ass to copy anything over a couple of dozen pages.

Now, of course, the level of effort to copy source material is virtually nil. So a lot of the discussion winds up around whether you think that copyright holders are essentially monetizing something that is essentially free (i.e., the cost of reproduction is near zero, so why am I paying $$ for my copy), or that easy and cheap doesn't make right (i.e., it shouldn't matter how easy it is to copy, you still need permission).
posted by forforf at 11:45 AM on August 6, 2008

There's probably a better reference for it, and this example might be a few decades too early for you, but my memory of the Atlantic article "The Heavenly Jukebox" (which I haven't recently reread) tells me that modern copyright law derives from litigation regarding piracy of sheet music around the beginning of the 20th century.
posted by msbrauer at 12:18 PM on August 6, 2008

I recommend the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. It is available free to read online at:

While the whole book contains many arguments for balanced copyright legislation, more specifically:
-Chapter 4 has a history of how piracy was integral in the development of early film, music, radio and cable tv, and
-Chapter 5 has history the legislative response to recorded music, radio, cable tv, and the VCR

Presonally, I think that the use of VCRs are a good example of copying that became very normal and was hotly disputed by the content creators.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:56 PM on August 6, 2008

Presonally, I think that the use of VCRs are a good example of copying that became very normal and was hotly disputed by the content creators.

And then, later but not many years later, became a major part of the content creator's revenue stream.

It's well worth re-telling the story that has happened time and time again, that what first was feared and opposed by the "content creators", and which they have lobbied to suppress, and which is accepted by the general public over their squeals of horror, invariably turns out later to become a major source of revenue and something highly desired.

Radio--opposed by "content creators" because they are 'stealing our music'. Later, the same "content creators" are caught actually PAYING payola to self-same radio operators to play their music, because it is such a powerful promotional medium and helps record sales. (And of course the radio stations do pay licensing fees to "content creators" for the use of the content, so they help the revenue stream that way as well.)

VCRs, bitterly opposed by "content creators", later becomes essential to the budgets of most movies via the "video release". Nowadays most movies make their millions through a carefully choreographed sequence of theatrical release, pay-per-view cable release, premium cable channel release, video/DVD release, regular TV network release, and so on. Miraculously, each of those generally makes a profit. That is to say, people still pay to watch a movie in a theater, even though they know it will be available on DVD and on TV later (and via pirate DVD almost immediately). And they still watch it on pay-per-view and premium cable even though they might have seen it in the theater and might buy the DVD. And still watch it on network TV even though the DVD has been available for some. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So in short each new medium becomes a new profit center for "content creators" and instead of spending their time bellyaching they ought to spend their time acting like the capitalists they claim to be and figuring out how to turn it into their next profit center rather than bellyaching about "lost profits".

Although there is probably some reasonable role for government in this process, in reality the role is almost completely negative. Just for example, in the case of internet file sharing, without the government there would be no realistic way at all of having the possibility of shutting down file sharing. So the "content creators" pin all their hopes on some kind of government crackdown that will just turn file sharing off and put everything back the way it was.

Without that hope, they would be forced to proceed directly to the next step, which would be, figuring out how to make some profit out of the file sharing business.
posted by flug at 8:21 AM on August 7, 2008

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