Copyright? Copyleft? Why does it matter? An interview with Heather Ford

2 June 2010

The digitization of information generation and distribution has renewed the debate on copyright laws. Those who are able to download and reproduce online materials rave about the vast resources—books, music, videos—they are able to access very easily. On the other hand, commercial producers of such materials are crying “Foul! That’s a crime! An infringement of copyright laws!” Meanwhile, those who are neither commercial producers nor heavy internet users such as women in poor rural and urban communities have not been part of the debates let alone decision-making on these issues despite the fact that developments on copyright laws impact on their knowledge production and access to information.

GenderIt writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza interviewed Heather Ford, Founder of the African Commons Project, a South African NGO with the goal of mobilizing communities through active participation in collaborative technology. Ford has worked in the fields of internet policy, law and management in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. She sheds light on some of these issues.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB): Copyright is regarded as a form of protection of authors or artists’ rights to their creative, intellectual, scientific, or artistic work. It prevents the general public from accessing their work without crediting them or paying to use or access their work.  Does this original concept of copyright remain to this day? Why or why not?

Heather Ford (HF): Actually, copyright prevents anyone from “copying” a work without permission from the copyright holder—except under specific 'fair use' or 'fair dealing' circumstances or when the work is in the public domain. This concept of copyright is still in force today, but there are two differences that have prompted a call for change to copyright laws. The first is that copyright has grown in term and scope over the years—with the effect that the original balance in the rights of the public to access knowledge for education and development is now tilted in favor of corporations rather than the public or creators themselves. The second is that, on the internet, when you browse or read a page, you're making a temporary copy of that page on your hard drive, technically breaking the law since you're making a copy without permission. This fundamental difference (and its numerous effects) means that copyright law is out of synch with current technological practice and emerging business models. 

MCB: How does the implementation of copyright laws vary from one country to another? Are there differences in the way they are implemented in the Global South and Global North countries?

HF: Implementation and enforcement of copyright laws tends to vary pretty extensively between developed and developing nations. This is mostly because the police and defence departments in developing countries tend to be very over-stretched already, and copyright enforcement tends to be lower on the list of their priorities. Also, because of the state of telecommunications infrastructure in many developing countries, the nature of infringement often differs - for example, illegal file-sharing tends to be enforced much more in developed countries because in developing countries infringement is more in the "analogue" world.

MCB: Do local communities that possess traditional and communal forms of knowledge—such as alternative forms of healing and organic agricultural techniques—have the same protection as copyright owners? Why or why not?

HF: Technically they have the same protection, but the thing about copyright is that something has to be written in order for it to be protected, and it doesn't do well to articulate how the benefits of communally-owned knowledge should be shared. This effectively means that these forms of knowledge are often prey to the individual or company that first decides to write it down or close off this knowledge through intellectual property laws.

MCB: Some anti-globalization activists refer to piracy as the revenge of the Global South. What is your opinion on this?    

HF: Yes and no. I think that piracy is not a black or white issue. Piracy of Microsoft products in developing countries, for example, has actually had the effect of later locking those countries into Microsoft products down the line; and piracy of western films has been argued to create monoculture in developing countries. On the other hand, the supposed revenues that are being "lost" due to piracy is a "problem" that many intellectual property holders complain about—and it's something that they can do very little to control. So in that sense, I guess it is a kind of revenge :)

MCB: What are the alternatives to patented and copyrighted products? Are they fully utilized—for example, are a lot of people aware of them and use them?

HF: The free and open source software and open content communities use 'copyleft' and open licenses to enable people to copy and remix their products legally by specifying upfront what uses they will allow. Creative Commons (CC) enables copyright-holders to choose a license that specifies that people can copy and share the work for non-commercial licenses, for example. There are six different combinations that you can choose according to the license choices. At last count, there were 150 million works licensed under CC, and CC is becoming the standard for sharing non-commercial educational material, science and other research online. On the software side, the majority of web servers around the world are run on Linux,[an operating system which is one of the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration]—and uses in mobile [telephones] and desktop [computers] are rising. 

MCB: What are the gender dimensions to the discussion on copyrights, copyright alternatives and access to knowledge?  For example, does piracy enable women to have access to information that might be specifically useful to them ?

HF: I think there are many ways to answer this question, but I think one of the most important issues is that women tend to be more involved in communal maintenance of knowledge systems, and as such do not fit within the copyright paradigm of individual/corporate control. For this reason, I think that women should get more involved in developing new alternatives to default copyright control— and to start to tackle the problem of community-owned knowledge systems and how the benefits should be shared in a future intellectual property regime.

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