US academic calls for a revolution in copyright laws, arguing that they hinder intellectual progress

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Speaking to an audience at the RSA in London, Professor James Boyle said:
‘We need to build a movement to preserve the public domain. I think we need an environmental movement for the public domain of the mind.’

Boyle, whose book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind was published in January, argues that the copyright term extension laws of the 1970s – which automatically preserve copyright of any material for seventy years after the death of the creator – are ‘the greatest law restricting free speech in the last 200 years, which passed without anyone even noticing’.

Likening the restriction of digital and printed material by copyright to the enclosure of common land in 19th Century England, Boyle warns that it is human nature to ‘over-emphasise and exaggerate the extent to which they [author rights] have to be controlled’, and as a result we have restricted access to cultural material based on gut instincts, rather than economic or social evidence.

In particular, Boyle says that by confining scientific papers to journals whose subscription fees are beyond the reach of most people, we are stifling scientific advance.

‘We’re missing a world in which smart minds could pull together different ideas from different scientific journals,’ he said. ‘What could that [linked-up world] build? We don’t know, but I bet it could be astounding.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009