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Copyright, Monopoly Games, and Pirates


Copyright creates a short or long-term monopoly, with exceptions for fair use. This law applies to a very large part of media content today; its origins and classic problems lie in the book trade of the 18th century.   Over three centuries in the Anglo-American world copyright has resembled a game of Monopoly where the players have repeatedly made up the rules.  Publishers, not authors, have had the largest measure of control because they have been better organized and better capitalized.  Authors have topped publishers in self-righteousness, but this has not done them much good.  In the first century of U.S. history, for instance, foreign authors were exploited by publishers with no apologies.  Courts and Congresses have revised the rules, but on purpose made them flexible and puzzling. The “fair use” of other people’s work dates back to the early years of copyright,  but exercising this right beyond a few well-understood practices continues to generate challenging cases for courts.  From the world of the flat-bed press to that of networked digital platforms, the only constant may be so-called “piracy” that set limits on the control of content and the power of information providers.

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