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How Big Media's Copyright Campaigns Threaten Internet Free Expression

Big media companies' efforts to extend copyright are hurting creators' abilities to find audiences for their work, argues cyber-rights activist Cory Doctorow.

The Internet's current, incredible diversity is great news for artists. The traditional artist's lament is that our publishers have us over a barrel, controlling the narrow and vital channels for making works available -- from big gallery owners to movie studios to record labels to New York publishers. That's why artists have such a hard time negotiating a decent deal for themselves (for example, most beginning recording artists have to agree to have money deducted from their royalty statements for "breakage" of records en route to stores -- and these deductions are also levied against digital sales through the iTunes Store!).

But, thanks to the Web, artists have more options than ever. The Internet's most popular video podcasts aren't associated with TV networks (with all the terrible, one-sided deals that would entail); rather, they're independent programs like RocketBoom, Homestar Runner, or the late, lamented Ze Frank Show. These creators -- along with all the musicians, writers, and other artists using the Net to earn their living -- were able to write their own ticket. Today, major artists like Radiohead and Madonna are leaving the record labels behind and trying novel, Net-based ways of promoting their work.

And it's not just the indies who benefit: The existence of successful independent artists creates fantastic leverage for artists who negotiate with the majors. More and more, the big media companies' "like it or leave it" bargaining stance is being undermined by the possibility that the next big star will shrug, turn on her heel, and make her fortune without the big companies' help. This has humbled the bigs, making their deals better and more artist-friendly.

Bargaining leverage is just for starters. The greatest threat that art faces is suppression. Historically, artists have struggled just to make themselves heard, just to safeguard the right to express themselves. Censorship is history's greatest enemy of art. A limited-liability Web is a Web where anyone can post anything and reach everyone.

What's more, this privilege isn't limited to artists. All manner of communication, from the personal introspection in public "diaries" to social chatter on MySpace and Facebook, are now possible. Some artists have taken the bizarre stance that this "trivial" matter is unimportant and thus a poor excuse for allowing hosted services to exist in the first place. This is pretty arrogant: A society where only artists are allowed to impart "important" messages and where the rest of us are supposed to shut up about our loves, hopes, aspirations, jokes, family, and wants is hardly a democratic paradise.

Artists are in the free expression business, and technology that helps free expression helps artists. When lowering the cost of copyright enforcement raises the cost of free speech, every artist has a duty to speak out. Our ability to make our art is inextricably linked with the billions of Internet users who use the network to talk about their lives.

Cory Doctorow is co-author of the Boing Boing blog, as well as a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his previous InformationWeek columns.