Copyright as Privacy, #Privacy as #Copyright

How is privacy connected to copyright? The similarities are stronger than you may think. After years of voices pointing to copyright as a threat to privacy (a favorite theme of pirates and tech companies), perhaps we can now take a deep breath and see other sides to the issue? One who got me thinking along these lines is Mike Holderness, a journalist involved with several organisations promoting authors rights. At a seminar in European Parliament this week (see separate story for a report), Holderness quoted Lawrence Lessig’s introduction to The Boy Who Could Change the World (The New Press, 2016) a posthumous collection of writings by Aaron Swartz. Swartz was an activist and a gifted programmer who tragically committed suicide while under federal indictment for data-theft in 2013, aged 26. Swartz contributed greatly the work to various internet development organisations such as the World Wide Web Consortium and was co-founder of Reddit, just to mention a few of his accomplishments. But more than anything, Aaron Swartz is remembered for his activism on issues like open access and not least the anti-SOPA campaign. Swartz was one of the strongest critics of copyright online (for more on Swartz, I recommend this documentary). Lessig’s introduction, as quoted by Holderness, talks about how Lessig quoted one of Swartz’s blog posts in one of his lectures. This upset Swartz, who said the post was for the readers of his blog, not the Stanford law students. To Holderness, this says that even Aaron Swartz cared about his moral rights as an author. How can this be? Perhaps another internet activist, Aral Balkan (you should follow him on Twitter: @aral) has a clue. This is what he tweeted yesterday:

Privacy isn’t about having something to hide; it’s about having the right to choose what you keep for yourself & what you share with others

Is that not the same basic idea as authors rights? It is my work and it is for me to decide how it is disseminated, how I am acknowledged as its creator, and it is my right that it cannot be distorted, at least not without my consent. Now replace “work” with “data” or “private information” and the pattern is there. Privacy – or data protection – and authors rights – part of copyright – are neighbors, not enemies.

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  1. I have never met a pirate who did not agree that the right of attribution. To be acknowledged as the the author of a work is an important right I have never seen contested. But the clash between copyright and privacy comes when trying to control sharing of works. If an creator decides to share a work with the public, then it is out, and there is no way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube. It when measures like mass surveillance and censorship are employed to prevent sharing that the true clash with privacy happens.

    It is comparable to putting cameras in the homes of people to prevent them from lending their books to friends, claiming that the author should have the right to determine how his or her work is disseminated. That is not a breach of the author’s privacy, but a breach of the piracy of the person who owns the book.

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