The following thesis was written by Stefan Larsson, a sociology of law researcher at Lund University in Sweden.
What is it about copyright that doesn’t work in the digital society? Why do millions of people think it’s OK to break the law when it comes to file sharing in particular? Sociology of law researcher Stefan Larsson from Lund University believes that legal metaphors and old-fashioned mindsets contribute to the confusion and widening gaps between legislation and the prevailing norms.
Our language is made up of metaphors, even in our legal texts. Stefan Larsson has studied what consequences this has when digital phenomena, such as file sharing and downloading, are limited by descriptions intended for an analogue world.
“When legal arguments equate file sharing with theft of physical objects, it sometimes becomes problematic”, says Stefan Larsson, who doesn’t think it is possible to equate an illegal download with theft of a physical object, as has been done in the case against The Pirate Bay.
Using the compensation model employed in the case against The Pirate Bay, the total value of such a site could be calculated at over SEK 600 billion. This is almost as much as Sweden’s national budget, says Stefan Larsson. The prosecutor in the Pirate Bay case chose to pursue a smaller number of downloads and the sum of the fines therefore never reached these proportions.
In Stefan Larsson’s view, the word ‘copies’ is a hidden legal metaphor that causes problematic ideas in the digital society. For example, copyright does not take into account that a download does not result in the owner losing his or her own copy. Neither is it possible to equate number of downloads with lost income for the copyright holder, since it is likely that people download a lot more than they would purchase in a shop.
Other metaphors that are used for downloading are infringement, theft and piracy.
“The problem is that these metaphors make us equate copyright with ownership of physical property”, says Stefan Larsson.
Moreover, there are underlying mindsets which guide the whole of copyright, according to Stefan Larsson. One such mindset is the idea that creation is a process undertaken by sole geniuses and not so much in a cultural context. In Stefan Larsson’s view, this has the unfortunate consequence of making stronger copyright protection with longer duration and a higher degree of legal enforcement appear reasonable. The problem is that it is based on a misconception of how a lot of things are created, says Stefan Larsson.
“Borrowing and drawing inspiration from other artists is essential to a lot of creative activity. This is the case both online and offline.”