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“Don't Fear the Internet”: Copyright and Online Freedom of Expression

Note: Article [es] by Derechos Digitales originally published in Spanish, translated by Silvia Viñas.

We never get tired of saying it. Freedom of expression and the Internet are related: if one is affected, the other will be also. However, in modern democracies it is sometimes difficult to detect threats to online freedom of expression.

Therefore, at this stage of the “Don’t fear the Internet” [es] campaign we will focus on how some copyright laws and practices end up discouraging the use of the Internet for expression. Here are five introductory answers to a problem that has united activists around the globe against SOPA, ACTA, TPP, etc.


Why is copyright a good thing?

In principle, copyright aims to boost human creativity by providing incentives to scientists, inventors, artists and generally all people to invest their time and effort into creating works that lead to the development of science, culture and the arts. In return, the law gives them some exclusive rights over what they’ve created.

Why is the Internet a good place for creators of intellectual property?

The Internet has become a platform that can make creative works accessible to anyone, without physical or temporal barriers that limit distribution of and access to these works. A work uploaded to the Internet reaches a lot more people and generates far more impact than one that is distributed using only old technologies.

If the Internet and copyright enhance intellectual works, why does copyright sometimes come into conflict with Internet users?

While the Internet provides unprecedented levels of dissemination and access to culture, and while new technologies give us a number of freedoms to manipulate, reinterpret, remix, mix and parody cultural works, copyright gives owners exclusive rights to intellectual works they’ve created, such as the right to copy, upload to the Internet, edit and translate cultural creations.

Therefore, there is a constant tension between the things you can do on the Internet and the things that at the same time are prohibited by copyright, even in cases of daily Internet use where there are no commercial purposes, like sharing files with your friends, linking to articles on social networks, etc.

How does this conflict affect online freedom of expression? Three examples:

One. Because it limits the capacity to create and share knowledge. For example, if copyright is protected over the the right to freedom of expression, daily actions of the Internet are challenged: when you upload a video which has parts of other works (like other videos or music), if you use the base of a song to create a new song, or if you upload a parody of another work to your blog, etc.

Two. Because there is a tendency to prosecute these cases. When faced with any use of a work protected by copyright, many companies respond by filing expensive lawsuits and demanding the removal of the content that was uploaded to the Internet. That happened to Stephanie Lenz, who uploaded a video to YouTube of her son dancing to a song playing on the radio, and the record label [that held the copyright to the song] sued her for infringement.

Three. Because copyright rarely recognizes exceptions for noncommercial use. The law (and the industry) does little to recognize that your daily actions on the Internet, such as maintaining a blog or sharing links with friends, do not have a commercial purpose. And if citizens don’t even have that guarantee, our freedom of expression is highly compromised.

So, what can we do?

The first and easiest step is to get informed. In the upcoming posts we will publish tips and recommendations for using, protecting, and defending your online freedom of expression. #NoTemasaInternet [es] [Don’t fear the Internet].

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