Public Domain Day challenges: what effect does copyright power have on us socially?

Boing Boing celebrated Public Domain Day today, when many works by authors who died in 1957 enter the public domain in countries that use a “life plus 50 years” term of copyright for personal works (the minimum term required by the Berne Convention). Celebrations like these invariably remind us of what we’re restricted from doing if we abide by the law. One of the Boing Boing followups struck me as interesting:

Eclectro says “I consider the Copyright Term Extension act the most vile piece of copyright legislation to date, moreso than the horrible DMCA.”

Neither is desirable, both should be repealed, and there should be no more extensions to the term of copyright. I’d rather not get into a dispute over which is worse. However the effects of the DMCA which allow copyright holders to control access to works last far longer than the US Constitution would let copyright’s term last outright. The term of copyright is finite but the anti-circumvention provisions in the DMCA don’t expire. Magnetic media (like videotapes) will eventually become unplayable and there’s plenty of work only distributed on digital media with digital restrictions management (DRM) applied. When the DMCA was signed into law it was possible that a movie on an encrypted DVD could enter the public domain while disallowing you from breaking the DRM to get to that PD movie.

DMCA exceptions are artificially hard to obtain, they’re only considered periodically, and they have to be renewed to last. The DMCA makes it hard to do things people will want and need to do including legally circumvent the encryption on an encrypted DVD, tell anyone how to break it, or distribute a device that breaks it. One could make their own deCSS on their own but that’s very unlikely to happen yet people need a way to leverage fair use by copying extracts of their legally obtained media.

DRM must be implemented with proprietary software because people won’t tolerate digital restrictions if they don’t have to. Free software hackers will remove the DRM from free software and distribute their improved DRM-less version of a program which will then become the more preferred version of the program to run, study, and build upon.

Publishers are pushing for electronic media which give the copyright holder unprecedented power over how the media is used. It’s not hard for engineers to imagine how GPS data (which tells where the device is on the planet), wireless communication devices, and clocks can be used together to make a media player that restricts where and when the user can play, read, or see certain tracks, books, or movies. Digital restrictions seem to come before good answers to social questions like how one lends a digital work, transfers ownership of a digital work without a copyright holder’s permission or notification, or how someone sees or hears in a digital work without copyright holder permission or notification—in short, how do we do the things we are all used to doing with paper books, DVDs, and older audio players?

Should anyone have to live sub rosa so they can enjoy their new digital media at least as freely they used to enjoy older media? Is it appropriate to give up treating one’s friends like friends and withholding copies or lending in order to satisfy publisher’s profit and control desires?