Copyright laws have been around as long as the printing press.
Over the years, they have provided no small amount of legal protection for expressions of ideas and information. But with some people now questioning the practice of copyrighting altogether, you can't help but wonder what a world without copyright laws would actually look like.
What Are Copyrights?
Copyrights grant exclusive rights for a wide range of works including written material, recordings, paintings, photographs, software, broadcasts, and industrial designs. It's important to know that copyrights only protect specific "forms of material expression" and not the general use of the idea itself. You can copyright a specific book about a purple alien from outerspace, but you can't copyright the idea of purple aliens altogether.
It's also important to know that copyright laws only provide protection for a specified period of time – not indefinitely. When the copyright term expires, the work it protects becomes fair game for anyone to use without penalty or restriction.
Much of the current criticism about copyright law revolves around the issue of whether or not ideas can be legitimately owned. In some cases, critics have accused corporate interests of using copyright laws to create an unfair advantage in the marketplace. Other critics argue that the modern application of copyright laws runs counter to the constitutionally mandated goal of promoting knowledge and learning.
Unfortunately, the business community bears the brunt of the criticism surrounding copyrighting. Although some of the criticisms may be warranted, much of the tension seems to reflect philosophical differences between artistic and profit-making interests.
A Copyright-Free World
The elimination of copyrights would inevitably lead to significant confusion and chaos not only in the marketplace, but in society as a whole. The artistic arena would quickly deteriorate as artists, authors, and other creative individuals would sacrifice financial protection for their creations. For example, as soon as a book was released, it could be re-released by someone else with no financial consideration to the original author.
Businesses – small and large – would likewise suffer from an inability to protect their ideas and identities from theft. Imagine what would happen if McDonalds no longer possessed the ability to retain exclusive to the golden arches. Competitors with golden arches of their own would soon litter the landscape. McDonalds would lose profit, but more importantly, consumers would find it difficult to differentiate one company's products from another's.
Additionally, a world without copyrights could conceivably threaten innovation in arenas currently protected by copyright law. If exclusive rights were no longer available, the profit incentive behind new ideas would disappear as innovations instantly entered the public domain.
Even though the current copyright system isn't perfect, right now it is the only system we have to protect the creators and rightful owners of original forms of expression. Regardless of where you fall in the debate, it's important to become conversant in the issues as a way of positioning your business' ideas both now and in the future.