Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Preserving our cultural assets

Over the last several hundred years, people have created a large number of cultural artefacts in the form of sculptures, paintings, pottery, clothes and so on. And also "immaterial" stuff like stories, music, films and so on. But over the last couple of centuries or so, we have had the means to preserve these in the form of material objects like gramophone records, tapes, cassettes, CDs and DVDs. In many countries, there have been efforts to preserve these at special places with special facilities and they have been successful to various extents. Of course, they always face the threat of being destroyed by a war, a terrorist's bomb or a natural disaster.

But it is astonishing to see the extent to which such material is preserved, especially in the digital format that is available easily today. Even films made half a century or more back are apparently available with people who are willing to share it with others. Still older music is available simply for download. And, I am sure, these will never be destroyed, whether by a war or by a natural disaster, because they are available probably with hundreds or thousands of people all over the world. And they are not keeping it because it is their joy. They locate such stuff and obtain a copy because they enjoy having a ocpy. So they take good care of it. And they are most often happy to show it off or share with others.

I think this is a fantastic way of preserving our cultural heritage. Simply because they will be safe, and also because they are where they really belong -- with the people. But there is one threat: from our laws. Because our laws make it illegal for people to keep copies of such stuff. Because they are all copyrighted.

It seems, in the world today, the rights of the owners of the copyright (not necessarily the creators) are greater than the rights of the entire humanity. And the rights extend for decades beyond the life of the creator. For the law, it really doesn't matter even if the creation is lost, so long as the rights of the copyright holder are protected. For the law, it really doesn't matter even if the creation ceases to serve the people for whom it was intended, so long as no one has an "illegal" copy.

I think this is absurd. The world is changing and the law should change with the times. Fortunately, the world is beginning to realise the futility of having such laws. Courts are hearing cases about how such restrictions are impeding the creativity of individuals, and thus doing a disservice to society. Movements like Free Software and Creative Commons are questioning such outdated laws. But society takes time to change. The old holds back the new. Let us hope that things will change sooner than later. Let us hope our cultural heritage will soon rest with the people.