I want to make it very clear that I am, in fact, a capitalist. I believe in the free market, and I’m adamantly opposed to more government in my life than is necessary. Why won’t the government let me just continue gambling online, Gosh-darn it? However, on one specific issue, I’ve been finding myself coming around to certain arguments about Copyright- a very capitalistic law, you’d assume. They basically allow a creator of some sort- an artist, scientist, engineer, musician, writer, or whoever, to retain the rights and hence the profits of the work.
And most people would agree to this right. J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter, and she should be able to find compensation for taking the time to write it down for the rest of us to enjoy. Just as a plumber should be able to find compensation for using his knowledge to fix your pipes. This is economics- the mutual exchange of goods and labor.
With physical property and manual labor, this process is quite straightforward. I give you money, and you give me an apple. You take the money and hire a plumber to fix your pipes. The plumber takes the money… and so on and so forth.
However, what about the exchange of the abstract? Ideas, stories, and songs? With something like a book, there are physical copies to be made, editors who check the spelling, and paper to be mulched- which all results in a very tangible book to be bought and sold. However, the story itself is also J.K. Rowling’s property! Not just the ink on the pages, but the imaginary character of Harry Potter, Hagrid, Hogwarts, and butterbeer all belong to J.K. Rowling.
CP and IP
This is where Copyright and Intellectual Property comes into play. You can claim abstract concepts- in other words, non-tangible stuff, as your property to be bought and sold as you wish.
However, this differs from traditional entrepreneurialism in a few key ways. If I buy a chair from a carpenter, that chair is effectively mine to do with as I please. I can sell it to my neighbor, light it on fire, or use it until I grow old and pass it on to my kids.
With intellectual property, redistributing is specifically forbidden. If I buy a copy of a song, legally, I’m not allowed to give it to my friends. They can’t stop me from doing it because that would be insanely difficult, but it’s illegal nonetheless.
Speaking of which, this is probably a good time as any to clarify that I am not a lawyer. I am not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of copyright law (or the law in general), and I could very well get some things wrong. If you need legal advice, talk to an actual lawyer, and don’t read random blogs you find on obscure websites.
Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that once intellectual property has been made, there is essentially an infinite supply of it now out in the world. You can copy and paste a song, text file, or piece of software until your hard drive fills up, upload it all to a cloud or an external server, and then copy it some more. This is part of the reason why so many people feel far less morally at fault for internet piracy, even though they would never so much as shoplift in the real world. By pirating a movie, you’re technically not stealing a copy out of the hands of a legitimate customer.
I am not advocating for internet piracy. I merely understand it. People want to enjoy their favorite media by the cheapest and most convenient means possible. This is why when Netflix first launched, internet piracy fell in sharp decline. It was cheaper and easier to just get a Netflix subscription than to deal with torrents and the morally gray area of pirating. Nowadays, however, because everyone and their uncle seems to have their own streaming service these days, internet piracy is on the rise once more. No one is willing to pay for Netflix, HBO, Disney+, Hulu, ParamountPlus, and Warhammer+ (yes, that’s real!) just to have access to the same content that all used to be collected together in one convenient package. But that’s neither here nor there.
Copyright and Retro Gaming
Where my opinion on Copyright law itself began to change was in regards to retro gaming. I’m admittedly not a HUGE retrogamer. I never had any of the classic consoles, aside from Nintendo’s old Gameboy Advance S.P., but I’m not sure if that counts. Anyway, I was drawn into the discussion of copyright law through a discussion on the importance of Backwards Compatibility.
If you’re unfamiliar, Backwards Compatibility is basically the ability for new hardware to be able to run old software. If you bought a Playstation 3, for instance, you could boot up and play your old Playstation 1 & 2 games. In contrast, the Playstation 4 has no backward compatibility, but the Playstation 5 is actually compatible with Playstation 4 games. This is a very consumer-friendly feature that prevents old games from becoming unplayable every new console generation. Since new consoles and hardware are released regularly, basically every five years, that actually can happen surprisingly fast. Even on P.C., I have C.D.s of games from the Windows XP era that simply cannot run on Windows 10- at least, not without an emulator of some kind. I bought the CD, I own it, but I can’t use it.
Now, I understand why game companies don’t particularly care about Backwards Compatibility. It’s expensive to ensure that old games can run on new hardware, and the effort, unfortunately, isn’t often reflected in sales. The Wii U had full Backwards Compatibility with Wii games, but no one on the planet is going to tell you that the Wii U did better than the Xbox One, which didn’t have Backwards Compatibility at all until two years after its initial release.
Instead, most companies and studios find it infinitely more profitable to make “Remasters”, “Reboots”, “HD Re-Releases,” or whatever fancy jargon they wish to use to sell you the same game you bought two decades ago. Sometimes, this comes with a genuine reworking of the original title that improves on its best features while fixing its dated graphics and known flaws (the “Demon Souls” remake, for instance). This is good. Other times, however, this is a blatant and shameless cash-grab from a company that hopes that the nostalgia glasses will keep their quarterly profits in the green this year. (“Mega Man”‘s mobile port, for instance).
But what about the titles that are never getting remade? Either because the company has moved on from the I.P., or because the original Studio went bankrupt? A dedicated enough fandom can port it or even recreate it entirely… except that they can’t. Just because the original creators and dev team have abandoned and long forgotten the I.P. doesn’t mean you can do anything with it, silly. The new company that now holds the rights to it will sue the crap out of you. Just because Nintendo is never bringing the Earthbound franchise to Western Markets doesn’t mean that you can obtain and/or make a fan port!
This is because of the power of Copyright. Even if the original creators are dead and buried, some corporations can cling desperately to the Copyright and milk the property for all it’s worth. It doesn’t help that certain lobbyists (CoughDisneyCough) constantly push to extend the deadline for Copyright. That’s why Micky Mouse, that wizened, centennial rodent, still hasn’t fallen into public domain (Theoretically, he becomes public domain in 2024. We’ll see if that actually happens, though). So, what used to be a twenty-eight-year grace period for creators has been extended to seventy years after the death of the creator.
By the way, I highly recommend Tom Scott’s video on YouTube, titled “YouTube’s Copyright System Isn’t broken. The World’s is.”
In it, he breaks down the major problems with modern Copyright and how YouTube’s content I.D./monetization system work around it. The long and short of it is that Copyright, as it currently exists, lasts too long and requires bucket loads of cash to enforce. Basically, even if you’re completely in the legal right to use or sue someone over a creative work, if you don’t have enough money, you’re straight out of luck.
While Tom Scott specifically was referring to was Copyright law in general and how it relates to YouTube. I, as a fan of video games, would love to see fan-made versions of Pokemon or modern ports of PS2 classics that I never got to experience. This, at the moment, is not legally possible. Nintendo is notorious for filing claims against fan-made work, even if all the art and assets are technically original. If “Pokemon” is mentioned anywhere, it’s not allowed.
Tom Scott outlines some solutions to Copyright law to make it in line with the modern world. First and foremost, copyright needs to be shorter. A work made by an individual lasts seventy years after their death, and a work made by a company lasts ninety-five years. That’s nuts! World-changing patents only last twenty years! Why should Final Fantasy Four stay legally protected more than a century longer than revolutionary medical technology?
The other solution is to make dealing with Copyright infringement more accessible. This would require establishing a small claims court for handling Copyright and intellectual property stuff, which I think is perfectly reasonable. The U.S. small claims court is amazing, and it would certainly even out the playing field between small-time creators and giant corporations like Disney.
I grew up in a world where YouTubers play video games for a living is completely normal. Their entire industry, however, is technically based on copyright infringement. If it weren’t for YouTube’s band-aid workaround, Pewdiepie and Markiplier and millions of others wouldn’t be where they are today. As a gamer and an artist, I want to keep living in a world where people get to enjoy the works they love and share them with the world without the fear of giant corporations suing them out of existence.
We need to break the intellectual monopoly. Otherwise, Disney will just keep their grubby hands on everything they own forever. And gosh-darn it, I’m going to want some good Star Wars stories eventually!