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Hyde Park Debate: Copyright and the Public Good

by | Nov 3, 2021 | 3 comments


Rick Anderson, University Librarian, Brigham Young University, moderated the popular Hyde Park debate:

Resolved: U.S. copyright law no longer meets its fundamental purpose to serve the public good.

(L-R) Rick Anderson (moderator), Kevin Smith, Sara Benson

Debaters were Sara Benson, Copyright Librarian, University of Illinois, who opposes the resolution, and Kevin Smith, Dean of Libraries and Director, University Press of Kansas, supporting the resolution., The person who caused the most votes to change will be the winner. Opening poll results were 81% agreed and 19% disagreed.

Kevin’s statement: Copyright has not always been needed, but it has served writers very well. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were passionate supporters of copyright. What changed? Copyright is a child of technological innovation which made true massive distribution of information possible. New audiences became available for printed works, but also new obstacles arose. Copyright has now outlived its usefulness because in the age of digital technology, creation is less expensive and distribution is essentially free. Copyright arose with the invention of movable type, but digital innovations have now made copyright irrelevant which has created a vicious circle. Everything about copyright is creating an insurmountable obstacle for users. We are asking Fair Use to do too much. The majority of authors and creators do not want limited distribution; they want their works to be read and used as widely as possible. Copyright is a barrier to this. Money has seldom been a prime motive for creators; now there are many more creators in many subject areas. The music industry used to release 30,000 songs/year; now it releases 1.2 million. Creators cannot make a living from the copyright income on their work. We are striving to create analog exclusions in a digital environment. Copyright has failed everyone and has thrown up needless obstacles to creators; it cannot be saved by tinkering with it. We need to think about what controls make sense in a digital environment.

Sara’s statement: Copyright still does serve its purpose by balancing the rights of authors and the public, librarians, and educators. Copyright law does a lot to meet the needs of librarians. We are the envy of the world, even if the Extension Act makes it too long (life of the author + 70 years). Section 108 provides exceptions for libraries to make copies for use by users and is a model low for other countries. Is Fair Use working for libraries and archives so that they can make entire copies for study and research.and for controlled digital lending. Creative activity has made copyright better by allowing sharing of works among users. A good example is the Hathi Trust. Creative Commons are not against the law; without copyright, these tools do not work. If we destroy copyright we lose Fair Use and Creative Commons. What is troubling us today is not the Copyright Act but contract law which has caused us to lose many things permissible under copyright. The Copyright Act is not the problem, but abusive license terms in contracts are.

Kevin’s response: Sara is looking at the problem through a lens that is too narrow. The law was written to assist print-based libraries; contract problems show us how the law is breaking down in the digital age where  everyone encounters copyright in their digital lives, and  we are facing a law that is ill suited and complex. We cannot function with such a complex law. Our current situation is automatic copyright. We should make the default applicable for specific circumstances and require applications for others.

Sara’s response: I too have struggled to find owners of copyrighted works, but if not copyright, then what would we have? Do we want a world full of licenses? Many creators were incentivized by the ability to make a profit. Without Fair Use, the information world would be a disaster; digital rights management would become more difficult. The more we use the tools we already have, the closer we will come to a good environment. Changes are often occurring.rapidly. Complexity can lead to innovation.

The closing poll results were 62% agreed and 38% disagreed with the resolution, so Sara was declared the winner of the debate.

Don Hawkins
Charleston Conference Blogger





  1. Peter Suber

    Thanks for this overview. You tell us, “Opening poll results were 81% agreed and 19% disagreed.” And you tell us that Sara opposed the resolution and won the debate. But you don’t tell us the closing poll results. Could you add the closing numbers?

    • Donald Hawkins

      Dear Peter,
      Thanks for your comment. I have added the closing poll results as supplied by Leah to the blog post.

  2. Leah Hinds

    Closing poll results were 62% agreed and 38% disagreed with the resolution.


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