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Framing the Copyright Debate

Magazine article Information Today

Framing the Copyright Debate

Article excerpt

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Online published an e-mail debate between Fritz Attaway and Wendy Seltzer about digital rights management (DRM). Attaway is a senior executive with the Motion Picture Association of America, while Seltzer is a Fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The article ("Reply All: 'DRM' Protects Downloads, But Does It Stifle Innovation?" June 20, 2006) was interesting, not only because DRM hits the intersection of business, law, and technology, but also because it is a perfect example of how copyright debates get framed.

As copyright has become more of a part of our daily discourse, an interesting, yet subtle, phenomenon has occurred. Discussion about copyright inordinately emphasizes owners' rights over consumers' uses. This phenomenon is important because it represents the opposite principles that are codified in the Copyright Act of 1976 (also known as the Act). At a fundamental level, the Act gives creators six exclusive rights, all of which are codified in Section 106. On the other hand, the Act lists more than a dozen exceptions (listed in Sections 107-122) that limit or qualify those six rights. In other words, copyright exceptions outnumber copyright rights by a 2-1 ratio.

Yet we'd never know about this from reading or listening to the most widely respected news outlets because copyright discourse is alarmingly one-sided. Using the WSJ Online debate as an example, this article looks at the way our copyright news is delivered, how that message has been slanted in favor of content owners, and the importance of learning how to parse through the barrage of messages that lead us to think more about rights than uses or exceptions.

Setting Up the Frame

George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Value and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green, 2006), describes a frame as a mental structure created by words or terminology that shapes the way we see the world. Frames are established by controlling public discourse about a topic, identifying and accepting a value, creating a strategy to perpetuate that value, and finally disseminating that value through accepted channels.

Through hard work, money, media access, and savvy, large corporations that control vast copyright portfolios--we'll call this group Big Content--have designed a dedicated, organized, well-funded, and relentless campaign to shape news, issues, and messages about copyright. So far, most of Big Content's attempts at framing issues have been successful. For example, consider your immediate reaction to the term "piracy," which has traditionally meant the robbery of ships or boats on the open sea. But in current discourse, Big Content has successfully framed the term "piracy" to mean theft of creative works. Big Content's frame of the term "piracy" has been so effective that it now refers to any use of a copyrighted work for which express permission to use it has not been granted. When you think of piracy, you don't think of Pirates of the Caribbean first, you think about the theft of someone's creative property.

Media complicity is a critical part of framing. For a frame to work, it must be picked up and perpetuated through media channels so it is commonly accepted in public discourse. Ideally, the media should identify prospective frames and parse their meaning, ultimately exposing their doublespeak and discarding the most disingenuous one. But in reality, most media outlets often fail to rebut. And once a frame becomes commonly accepted, it becomes virtually impossible to destroy or reframe.

Again, the piracy frame is instructive. Once Big Content began constructing the piracy frame through the mainstream media, keen journalists should have detected it, questioned the terminology, asked for a clear definition (since clarity often uncovers frames for what they really are), and then sought to understand some core issues about copyright. …

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