Language Matters: All The Copyright Lobby’s Subtleties

Home > News >

In my previous columns on lobbyist language, I've focused on choice of words to frame the debate - as the side that wins the framing, wins the policy. But small nuances can be even more devious than the selection of key words.

copyright-brandedWe’ve discussed industrial protectionism and content vs container before. To wrap up the theme, I’d like to look at the more subtle points of lobbyist language, which are just as devious – if you copy them, you’re working against your own liberties.

The copyright industry doesn’t just choose positive phrases to describe their specific “innovations”. They also try to establish sayings, phrases, and other combinations of words to make them uttered so often they become colloquilalisms, and yet, have very strong values embedded into them. This is very subtle, but just as important to understanding proper usage of the copyright monopoly, industrial protectionism, and digital restriction measures. It may not be those words that win the mindset, but the words in between – small words like left, right, black, and white.

For example, let’s talk about the public domain. What happens when a piece of art falls into the public domain, as many do on January 1 every year?

Let’s stop right there. Did you react to that sentence? Did you recognize it as obviously biased pro-copyright-industry lobbyist language? Odds are you didn’t, and yet it’s carefully crafted to describe the public domain as something starkly negative. This is how successful the copyright industry has been, and that’s how much of their language we need to change in reframing the debate.

Karl Fogel of Question Copyright tweeted about this a while back, referencing Noel Taylor and pointing out something that’s obvious only when you see it. To understand how “a work falls into the public domain” paints the copyright monopoly as something good and essential, compare that common phrase with the following sentence, which is a much better way of putting it:

What happens when a piece of art is elevated to the public domain, as many are on January 1 every year?

Did you see the difference? It’s not in the key words, but rather in between them. It’s about the direction described for the public domain. Our language metaphors attach really strong value to whether an item loses height or climbs on a ladder – whether it goes up or down. The difference between “falls into” the public domain and “is elevated to” the public domain is essentially the difference between whether the public domain is figurative hell or heaven, respectively. (There’s another example right there: hell is assumed to be down, heaven assumed to be up, even though it’s not mentioned anywhere. Very very cultural.)

An even worse way of wording the event, which the copyright industry has sometimes used, is how a work “lapses into” the public domain. This may be technically correct, but when you observe it instead in terms of language value, the expression “lapsing into” is functionally equivalent to “being neglected into” the public domain. It sends a strong signal of worthlessness, when we know the opposite to be true: when a work is in the public domain, it can be built upon freely to create new art of the highest order. (See there? “Highest order”, again.)

This can also be used when describing Creative Commons licenses – and when listing them. We are conditioned to see the item listed as the top as the most coveted and covetable, no matter the context. Merely by listing the maximalist restrictions at the bottom, and then gradually ascending toward CC-Zero (public domain), iterating through gradually higher licenses (see?) until you reach CC-BY, and then the highest license, CC-Zero, at the very top. Just that mere illustration establishes a mindset, one that industry lobbyists have long mastered, and which we must too.

The copyright industry is really skilled at using language to stack the debate against the net and against liberties. When we copy their language, we lose our liberties.

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at focuses on information policy.

Book Falkvinge as speaker?


Popular Posts
From 2 Years ago…