The NYT reports on an unintended consequence of the filesharing lawsuits brought by the RIAA against students: political activism.

In this article from the New York Times (may require free registration), the group ‘Students for Free Culture’ is introduced as a political movement against what they describe as digital feudalism.

The group is named after the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig — which, incidentally, I thoroughly recommend to you. It’s free to download online, or you can pick up a dead tree version in the New Music Strategies bookstore.

Their position is that copyright is entirely broken (where have I heard that before?) because the law has not kept pace with technology. I’m inclined to agree. Lessig says that too many copyright restrictions ‘dampen creativity’. Sounds like sense.

Copyright is important
Don’t get me wrong: copyright is very important, but not because it’s a device through which corporations can make massive profits and sue students, dead grandmothers and pre-teen girls. I have no problem with corporations making profits, but their interests should not supersede those of the general public.

Copyright is important because it is meant to incentivise creativity, so that artists will be justly encouraged to create works that contribute to culture. Currently, it doesn’t do anything like that, and that’s a real shame. Artists should be rewarded for making musical works. People should be motivated to help get those works into the hands of as many people as they can. But that’s not what copyright, as it now stands, has very much to do with.

In fact, it locks down culture for as many years as it possibly can, prevents people from doing anything at all with it, and is only about maximising revenue rather than contributing to society and the intellectual and cultural life that music is supposed to enhance.

The word most often used in conjunction with copyright is ‘protection’. But copyright is not about ‘protection’. It’s about permission. Creative Commons licensing is a way to give certain types of permission and withhold others. It gets you out of the All Rights Reserved / No Rights Reserved dichotomy. I’m a bit of a fan, despite the common objection that it’s difficult to rescind permissions once given.

But to me, the real solution would be to throw out the existing copyright laws in their entirety, return to first principles and redraft them from scratch. What do we, as a society, want from our copyright laws? And what do the existing technologies enable that we could bring to bear on that?

Perhaps it’s not even about copying any more. Perhaps it’s about distribution now. But what we do know for sure is that the existing rules, designed and augmented to cater for the technologies and interests of the electric world, do not function well in the digital world.

Frightened into resistance
So these students, who are supposed to be frightened into compliance with a series of what can only be described as bad laws wielded with impunity, have instead been frightened into taking political action. The comparison made is what happened at universities during the Vietnam War, when students were frightened into action by the draft.

Think that’s an unfair comparison? Think how motivating the threat of up to $150,000 fine per downloaded song might be.

These are troubled times. The Iraq War, Afghanistan, global warming… But you want to inspire activism and get students to rally around a cause? Threaten them.