Widespread copyright anxiety, leading to copyright chill, means something is deeply wrong

Thirty years ago, copyright law was boring. It was the province of specialised lawyers, and had very little direct impact on ordinary people’s lives. The Internet changed all that. Now, everyone online is affected by copyright, which comes into play whenever people create something in a fixed form, like a post, or when they share something, like a meme. The clash of laws drawn up three centuries ago with technology barely a few decades old has led to a growing sense of unease among Internet users. That’s been exacerbated by the copyright industry’s hyperbolic claims about the damage that sharing online material causes, and its calls for absurdly serious punishments for infringing on copyright monopolies. No wonder, then, that ordinary people feel nervous about creating things online. But how serious is the problem? A fascinating new paper published in the Journal of Copyright in Education and Librarianship provides some insights.

Navigating copyright issues can be frustrating to the point of causing anxiety, potentially discouraging or inhibiting legitimate uses of copyright-protected materials. A lack of data about the extent and impact of these phenomena, known as copyright anxiety and copyright chill, respectively, motivated the authors to create the Copyright Anxiety Scale (CAS). This article provides an overview of the CAS’s development and validity testing. Results of an initial survey deployment drawing from a broad cross-section of respondents living in Canada and the United States (n = 521) establishes that the phenomenon of copyright anxiety is prevalent and likely associated with copyright chill.

As that notes, copyright anxiety is not without important consequences. Because many people are unsure what is and what isn’t legal online under copyright, they self-censor, and choose not to post or create things for fear it might land them in serious legal trouble. Ironically, increasingly strong copyright is casting a “chill” that discourages, rather than encourages, creativity. Given the billions of people who are now online, the scale of that creative loss is likely to be massive. The researchers conclude:

It is clear from the survey response data that copyright anxiety is a real phenomenon for many and has practical consequences that can impede creativity and potentially legitimate forms of sharing content. Given that more than a quarter of respondents indicated that they had abandoned projects due to copyright-related anxiety, it is fair to say that the phenomenon is in fact prevalent.

Although small-scale, this is important work in that it quantifies for perhaps the first time the harmful effect that copyright has on creativity – something that copyright’s supporters never mention. More research is needed to confirm and extend the results. But when large numbers of people are being scared away from expressing themselves creatively, it’s a sure sign that there is something deeply wrong with the current copyright system.

Featured illustration by Nina Paley

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