Copyright, piracy and stealing

My post yesterday about copyright laws and piracy generated a lot of very interesting feedback, both in the TalkBack section and via email. One thing that struck me from the feedback was how opinion is divided on whether infringing copyright is stealing, and if it is stealing, how far do you have to cross the line to be considered a criminal?

My post yesterday about copyright laws and piracy generated a lot of very interesting feedback, both in the TalkBack section and via email.  One thing that struck me from the feedback was how opinion is divided on whether infringing copyright is stealing, and if it is stealing, how far do you have to cross the line to be considered a criminal?

What makes discussions about copying digital content so interesting is that content is so easily duplicated that pretty much anyone with access to the material can copy it and then go on doing that limitlessly and be able to then go on to distribute that content to others without the knowledge or consent of the person who created the initial piece of work.  I'm pretty sure that throughout the ages, people who relied on creating something in order to be able to eat and provide for their families worried about having their ideas ripped off, but it's not all that easy to rip off artwork, a piece of furniture, an item of jewelry, a statue or whatever.  The duplication process involves skill and effort.  Duplicating digital content is quick and simple and requires very little effort. (OK, this isn't entirely accurate.  If you don't have the tools then copying, say, a DVD is complex and requires that someone else put in the time and effort to create a tool to simplify the process so that it's accessible to the masses.  The person who creates that tool can then choose whether to sell it - and possibly be ripped off themselves - or give it away.) 

When we think of stealing, I think we automatically think of "real world" examples of theft that don't relate to or apply very well to the digital world.  For example, ask say a hundred people whether they'd steal a car, assuming you've got a representative cross-sample of society, most if not all will say that they wouldn't.  However, what if the same people were told that they could take the car and leave a copy of it for the original owner?  My guess is that more people would now be willing to "take" the car.

Extend the argument out a little.  Let's say that we accept the price that iTunes puts on a song and that a track is 99 cents.  How many people would be willing to steal something worth 99 cents?  A few pens from the post office perhaps?  Stationery from the office?  Cheating the toll booth or parking without paying for a ticket?  Hmmm. 

I used the word "take" in the above example because "steal" is a strong, emotive work that causes people to get emotional.  Equally, rightly or wrongly, many people involved in creating content consider those who violate copyright to be criminals.  People get very upset when negative words are applied to them and they feel the need to go to great lengths to prove that they're not really stealing and not really criminals.  The two sides just can't see eye-to-eye because they see the issue from such different perspectives.  Those who create the content want recognition and reward for it, and they would like to be able to control how their work is distributed.  Those who buy it want to be able to make "fair use" of it (and each person seems to define "fair use" based on their values and beliefs).  Then there are those who want to profit from the work of others.  There's no one point that satisfies all three groups.  Even if you ignore the pirate out to make a profit (and if you do that, do you then also have to ignore the pirate that seeks to undermine the profits of another by distributing a copyrighted work for nothing), I still think that it's hard to achieve a compromise that satisfies both the creator and the consumer.  Heck, there are also times when consumers feel that they are being ripped off, especially when DRM gets in the way of something that they want to do that they believe falls under the banner of fair use.

As a content creator myself, I always try to err on the side of the consumer.  Sure, there are times when I know I'm being ripped off or taken advantage of, but in every business there's a margin of loss that has to be acceptable.  Maybe if I knew the true scale of of the problem I'd feel different though ... hmmm.

"Fair use" is an interesting term and what many fail to realize is that technology quickly changes the scope of what they expect to receive.  A good example is the transition from video to DVD.  I don't know how many video tapes I've had go wrong over the years but I never expected to be able to back up a commercial tape.  However, now with DVD I like to know that a backup is at least possible, even if I rarely bother (must be great for parents with young kids though ... however, I wouldn't like to imagine a world where that the "Tellytubbies" video never wore out).

Despite being a firm believer in a fair form of "fair use", there are some arguments that I simply cannot swallow.  Ideas such as there's no such thing as ownership and such are simply an illusion that the modern world we live in just happens to generate.  Equally, ideas that the whole notion of copyright is bad can only ever be supported by people or organizations that don’t directly create anything or who earn a living in an industry where it's not so easy to be ripped off or which enjoys some other form of protection.  If you still feel that it's morally and ethically right to take the fruits of someone else's labors for nothing, think about how you'd feel if your paycheck was a few dollars short or if you were short-changed at a store or bank.

I also find it hard to buy the argument that copyright laws were never intended to protect profits.  Times change but I think that the idea remains much the same. 

I also don't like the "as long as you don't make money from it you can do what you want" argument.  For some people this seems to extend as far as giving copyrighted materials away for free.  Again, if you feel that there's nothing wrong with this, think about how you'd feel is someone gave away your work for free.

As for the argument that CDs and DVDs cost almost nothing to produce ... well ...

Equally, I find it hard to swallow some of the arguments put forth by the RIAA, MPAA and other interested parties.  I agree that piracy exists but it's hard to put a figure on it.  There are some wild claims being made as to the revenues lost to piracy but given the profits being pulled in by the big studios, it's hard to see that piracy is having a huge impact on sales.  It's also hard to get behind and support the heavy-handed tactics being employed by the RIAA and MPAA.  It's pretty easy to find examples of commercial piracy on the Internet and no need to bother people who upload/download music.  It's also easy to come to the conclusion that DRM isn't really a mechanism for preventing piracy but rather a way to introduce a 1 license per device mechanism and get honest people to pay multiple times for the same content, rather like a tax.  After all, it's easier to get the honest consumer to pay than it is the pirates.

Does DRM protect "good kids from becoming bad?"  No idea, but I guess we'll find out now that EMI is selling DRM-free music.  My guess is that it has some effect, but it's probably small given how easy most DRM is to defeat and how easy it is to find anything on the Internet.  Having said that, we all still protect our cars and homes with locks.  Maybe it makes sense to have some limits on digital content.



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