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the Complete Review
the complete review - law / policy

How to Fix Copyright

William Patry

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase How to Fix Copyright

Title: How to Fix Copyright
Author: William Patry
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 262 pages
Availability: How to Fix Copyright - US
How to Fix Copyright - UK
How to Fix Copyright - Canada
How to Fix Copyright - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good introduction/overview of copyright issues (and what's wrong with current copyright regimes)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 6/2/2012 Caleb Crain
Publishers Weekly . 3/10/2011 .
Wall Street Journal . 25/1/2012 Robert Levine

  From the Reviews:
  • "Patry’s reasoning is slipshod throughout the book, and more than once he tells the reader what to think instead of taking the trouble to convince him. Nor are these the only signs that the book may have been hurriedly -- or just poorly -- written. Patry often repeats himself." - Caleb Crain, The Nation

  • "Insightful, impeccably researched, and prescriptive, Patry’s vision of copyright should resonate with today’s creators -- and infuriate yesterday’s media and entertainment conglomerates." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Mr. Patry attacks media companies for exaggerating their problems with piracy, then goes on to engage in hyperbole better suited to blog posts than books. This is a shame, since How to Fix Copyright is full of smart, sensible ideas." - Robert Levine, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       How to Fix Copyright doesn't actually offer a summing-up 'list of recommendations' or the like for how to fix copyright at the end; as William Patry explains in his Introduction, the book is in fact full of recommendation, but he didn't take them and string them together in a simple list in the concluding chapter because he thinks that, divorced from their context, it couldn't: "serve as a basis for the necessary self-examination". Indeed, if there's a theme to the book and Patry's approach it is that the making of copyright law is far too often (indeed, almost always) far removed from context, experience, and evidence. He is careful in noting that there is no simple 'right' answer to what copyright-specifics should look like, but that goals (what should copyright protection achieve ?) and facts (do copyright laws actually achieve their intended ends ?) must always be taken into consideration.
       Much of How to Fix Copyright is devoted to amusing and shocking deconstructions of just how misguided intellectual property legislation has become. [Patry deals mainly with US copyright law, although he also offers numerous European Union examples; a number of global issues that obviously impact local law and enforcement in this wired age also crop up.] Patry notes conditions have changed so completely that a radical rethink is necessary: the Internet age means everything is different:

To be effective, our copyright law must be based on the world of digital abundance. Our copyright laws are, alas, still firmly rooted in the world of physical, artificial scarcity.
       Among Patry's major complaints is that: "Policymakers have been operating in an evidence-free copyright law zone for many decades." As he repeatedly shows, claims made for what amounts to stricter copyright protection -- longer duration, tying up works so that copying/sampling is strongly discouraged or prohibited, etc. -- essentially never lead to the claimed benefits and boon, encouraging creativity and offering consumers more/better choices. Instead, they stifle creativity and innovation -- and benefit almost no one (save a few corporations, most of whom are not in any way meaningful involved in the creative aspects of production, but rather just handle the products like any other commodities).
       Some of the facts are so clear in their implications that one would think they would obviously be taken into account in revising copyright law. The most obvious is the renewal-rate for works under copyright during the time when the US initially protected works for a set time -- twenty-eight years -- and then allowed for a renewal term, extending protection for another fourteen years. A number of studies suggest a consistent renewal rate of only around 15 per cent (less if only books are considered). As Patry notes, most work is valuable only for a short time after publication: if you don't make money with it immediately, you very likely won't in the future -- and indeed the work becomes more valuable to society at large (because it possibly can be repurposed or reused in novel ways by new creators) if it enters the public domain rather than being locked away in copyright. He cites a 2002 study [pdf] that found: "that of the 187,280 books published in the U.S. from 1927-1946, only 4,267 are available in 2002 from publishers at any price" -- 2.3 per cent. Even in a digital age, where access to these works has again become easier, the problem of identifying associated rights and rightholders leave these far less accessible, valuable, and useful to both creators and consumers than they should be; the problem of 'orphan works' -- protected by copyright but the actual rights-holder unidentifiable (rendering the works essentially unusable and inaccessible to all) -- is one that has exploded under the current American copyright system.
       The current, insane regime that automatically confers full copyright protection for many decades after an author's death benefits a very select very few, and obviously stifles creative innovation. Patry does not claim there is a 'right' term (or conditions) of copyright protection, but does agree with the obvious: the period of absolute protection must be drastically cut. (Voluntary renewals -- as under the old regime -- seemed a pretty good way to go, protecting the truly valuable work that creators (and often the corporate right-holders) want (and possibly deserve) long-term protection for.)
       Patry does a nice (and entertaining job) of not so much deflating the claims of the big movie and music companies and their lobbyists as completely exploding them. Significantly, he also strongly suggests that their behavior and that of their legislator-lackeys -- forcing through copyright protection suited to pre-digital conditions, but not the contemporary world -- is damaging to all. Certainly consumers see little benefit, while creative talent also finds itself stifled -- generally without accruing any of the benefits claimed for them.
       As he notes:
This fanatical obsession with control explains why the copyright industries so consistently take anti-consumer actions; it is not that the industries hate their customers, as is commonly assumed, but rather that the industries believe the only way they can make money from their customers is to tightly control customers' access to and use of their works. The effect of this approach is a hostile relationship and bad business models. Control has nothing to do with incentives to create
       Patry acknowledges the (absolute) need for some copyright protection, but persuasively argues that the sclerotic corporate behemoths clinging to the old business model -- and trying to continue to erect barriers via legislation that will allow them to plod on the same old way -- are leading us all down a dead end. It's a new world, and in this age of digital abundance and easy access business models and legal frameworks have to be radically re-thought. As he notes, a freer approach -- a willingness to take advantage of digital abundance and reach -- can often be used to increase sales or find whole new product niches. (This isn't anything new: note that present-day publishers are still willing to print out-of-copyright texts (essentially all of which are available for free online) and apparently are still able to make good money that way, whether by offering some sort of value-added (annotations for that Shakespeare edition, an introduction by some scholar or famous writer) or simply packaging the material in a way that appeals to consumers.)
       How to Fix Copyright covers a lot of familiar ground -- most of these objections and examples aren't new -- but it's nicely packaged and argued. Patry is appropriately outraged at the way copyright law is decided on -- and his sensible demand that those drafting (and voting on) the legislation should look at the facts and evidence in deciding what kind of laws they want is one that one hopes will attract more notice. (Some of his example of how counter-factual arguments and laws are, indeed, hair-raising.) Indeed, what's perhaps most surprising and shocking is how obvious how much that he -- and many before and alongside him -- have shown is wrong is -- and yet copyright law in the United States merrily continues to tangle itself into an ever-greater mess (and the legislators who vote for these counter-productive measures keep getting re-elected ...).
       [Pedantic copy-editing note: p.254 has a quote from: "Professor Taylor Cowen"; the Creative Destruction author is -- as correctly written in the corresponding endnote -- Tyler Cowen.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January 2012

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How to Fix Copyright: Reviews: William Patry: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       William Patry works for Google.

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© 2012-2022 the complete review

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