Over the months that this blog has been running we've had some really good discussions relating to copyright laws and piracy. Hardware such as portable media players and disc burners are closely linked to copyright and piracy because these devices allow people to do things with content that the copyright holders might not be too happy with. But is violating the terms of copyright theft, whether it be on a small or large scale, right or wrong? Is it theft? When does it become theft? Where do you draw the line?
Discussions relating to copyright laws and piracy seem to break down into two groups:
- Those who believe that piracy is a growing problem and that something needs to be done about it. These people also feel that punishments for copyright infringement should be harsher.
- Those who feel that there's nothing wrong with violating copyright. There are sub-camps within this camp, for example, those who feel that infringing copyright is OK as long as a profit isn't made and those that believe that copyright violation is hyped by the media and that it's not a widespread problem. Another widely held belief is that information should be freely available
Looking at things from a different angle, copyright laws have to balance the needs of two groups of people:
- Copyright holders who generate the content and require the protection of the law
- Those who want to make use of copyrighted material
It might seem like an odd thing to say but I can see the argument from both sides. If you're a copyright holder or someone who happily pays for the content that you use and do your best to remain on the right side of schemes such as DRM, then it's easy to see any kind of copyright infringement (even when trivial or non-existent) as theft and demand that it's treated as such. I buy a LOT of DVDs and some music in the form of CDs and never feel like seeing if I can download it for free.
However, if you're someone who makes a lot of use of copyrighted material but doesn't understand that everyone in the chain has a right to control how the material is used or distributed then it's likely that you feel that there is nothing wrong with violating copyright for personal use (ripping a CD for use on multiple devices, making a backup CD for the car, making a mix CD ...). I can buy the argument that this doesn't hurt anyone so what's the big deal - as long as it's for personal use. There's being fair and being greedy, and too many content providers are using DRM as a way to be greedy and expect a user to pay multiple times for content
And at the extreme end of the spectrum you have those who see nothing wrong with making a profit from the work of others without consent. This is a different matter. In my mind this is just theft in a modern guise. You're not stealing a physical thing, but you are stealing the other person's ability to control how their content is distributed and denying them a return on their investment.
Somewhere in the middle you have people who think that it's OK to have free and easy access to copyrighted works and download or make available to others everything they can. It's this group of users that make the the whole copyright debate interesting because their view on copyright is that it's "all you can eat" is just fine. Try having a rational debate with these people and you get some interesting arguments. File-sharing doesn't harm anyone. Content should be free. The record/movie industry is evil. File-sharing encourages people to buy more DVDs/CDs. It's quite interesting to watch people justifying this position and presenting tortured logic to prove how they're not really stealing.
For those of you that think that piracy and copyright infringement doesn't exist, I'm here to tell you as someone who generates intellectual property that it does happen. For example, there are a number of blogs that reproduce everything that I post to this blog, the only difference is that the content that I've generated is surrounded by someone else's ads. Other people want to profit from my effort and offer me nothing in return. If people are duplicating my blog posts here then I'm pretty sure that other people will be doing the same with Spider-Man 3. There's a lot of piracy out there.
The main tool that the recording and movie industry have used to combat piracy is DRM. The idea here is that everyone is potentially a pirate and by making use of DRM it's a little harder for people to duplicate that movie or downloaded song. "Don't turn a good kid bad." But DRM is not an obstacle for anyone who's serious about copying a song or movie. In fact, to me DRM is the ultimate signal from content providers that the law, for one reason or another, does not work. It's not the pirates profiting from disregarding copyright laws who are punished, but instead it is the average user. This is the part that seems wrong to me.
What's your take on copyright laws and piracy? What's right and what's wrong? Where does DRM fit into the equation? Has technology made it too easy to infringe copyright? Do we expect content for nothing? Has the digital age redefined theft?