Some time ago John Ewing wrote a beautiful piece for First Monday entitled "Copyright and Authors". Here's a key paragraph:
Copyright is also neither inherently good nor inherently evil. But even the most casual observer can see that something is wrong with copyright. Today's copyright laws and traditions are dissonant with modern culture and technology, and the dissonance has become more and more apparent in the past few years. If we want to adapt copyright to our modern world -- if we want to protect the good aspects of copyright -- we need to do more than repeat slogans about fairness and protecting authors. We need to learn something of copyright's nature in order to understand how to solve its problems.
Ewing presents the current state of copyright law and expectation as the outcome of a long struggle for control over content between publishers or distributors on the one hand and content creators on the other. It's a compelling argument with important consequences.
Here's another bit from his "Modern Copyright" section:
Today, we live with two cultures of copyright. One views copyright as economic protection for authors -- a practical way to provide financial incentives. The other views copyright as a matter of philosophical principle, protecting the natural rights of authors. Both view copyright as something meant for authors. In practice, throughout most of the world, copyright gives publishers financial protection for the work, guaranteeing a monopoly for up to 70 years beyond the author's life. That period of time has steadily increased, driven forward by the argument that society needs to treat authors fairly -- by protecting their property.
To a large extent that's what I think we're seeing with the DRM issue too: content publishers and distributors seeking to assert top down control over content distribution and selling the whole thing to us as a method of ensuring that content creators receive fair value for their work.
So what can we do? here's part of his conclusion:
Copyright has drifted out of balance over the years. What can we do to bring it back? Alas, there are no simple answers. Changing copyright laws is difficult. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling above shows why; so does the entire history of copyright.
As authors, however, we may be able to restore balance to copyright without changing the law itself. There are many groups working to find appropriate ways for authors to dedicate their work to the public domain after a suitable length of time. That's a solution that addresses the real problem: balance.
For centuries, publishers have convinced authors that they are helpless victims in need of protection. Copyright is for authors; copyright is fair; resistance is futile and foolish. But it's possible to resist, and we should.
To me, that makes sense and perhaps what we need is a recognition that electronic distribution negates many publisher arguments for a long duration copyright - so maybe a pop song distributed via the web should have a graduated copyright with DRM enforced restrictions only applicable for perhaps 30 days, and ordinary, restrictions against commercial copying then applicable for a longer period.