Issues of Copyright

Copyright law is frustrating because it is both a space where government policy and current discourse fail to understand the realities of modern technology and also a space that is actively manipulated by large corporations. It’s ethically problematic, because its not clearly benign the way gay marriage is, but its also not harmful the way theft is. Arguments against downloading copyright infringing material are always framed in terms of stealing and theft, thus ignoring the distinction between stealing and copying data. In the fine words of some noble Redditor:


Actually you can download a gun so downloading a car can’t be that far off. The point is, the actually copyright system, which was designed for books and things that are hard and slow to copy, simply isn’t meaningful now. Ripping the music from a CD and putting it on a website is roughly equivalent to making a copy of a page in a book. Obviously publishers have never been particularly worried about copy machines, the laws exist so that you couldn’t set up your own print and produce someone else’s book. But an MP3 on a website can reach thousands of people. 

The fundamental argument against downloading copyright infringing material is that it takes away money from the artist, musician, author, etc. This is a fairly compelling argument, but as is, that’s not the case. As a general rule, proliferation through the internet tends to increase popularity for something and works to increase sales. Musicians make most of their money these days through performance. About 6% of a recording artist’s income is through sales. The individuals being pinched are the record companies that only sell CDs, and while it is unfortunate for them, they didn’t make the music. The record company serves the same purpose as BitTorrent, the proliferation of the music, and their fundamental problem is that they just are not as cost effective. And if you doubt that downloading music helps musicians, there is research to back this up. In a study by The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, evidence showed that time spent on downloading websites correlated well with time spent on websites for buying music legally. The relationship between movies and downloading is slightly more ambiguous. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the shutdown of Megaupload actually hurt the movie industry. There’s another study contradicting this, which funded by the MPAA . Enough said.

The only argument that I would find compelling is the case that the current relationship between downloading copyrighten material for free and buying it exists because of efforts to suppress downloading. This is possible, and its hard to say what the best legal and economic responses are. There are some reasonable ones that are very hopeful, but many are absurd.

The war against illegal downloading is impressive both in the lengths to which the MPAA, the RIAA, various governments, and a hoard of unethical lawyers have gone to fight it, and how remarkably ineffective they have been. I’m not sure if I have the time and energy to talk about this absurd process in any depth. Perhaps I approach in the manner in which I think: thematically.

  • Efforts to stop people from using things differently from what corporations desire has lead to a bizarre war on ownership itself. It began when Apple first introduced DRM on iTunes. It seems obvious to set up parts of the system so that piracy is difficult or impossible. But, as XKCD pointed out, you have more ownership and control over music you downloaded illegally than music you buy. Music that is lost when you change computers and can’t be burned onto a disc is worthless. Efforts to deter video game theft are more subtle, usually requiring a valid CD to play the game. This gets frustrating when your computer doesn’t have a CD drive. I recently had to use no-CD cracks on a game I bought. Now there’s talk of legislating against unlocking cell phones. As the linked article points out, this warping of property rights is dangerous on several levels, as well as illogical.
  • The most obvious efforts to fight downloading have been the prosecution of large downloading sites and services. In recent memory, MegaUpload is the most obvious effort, as well as the never-ending struggle with the Pirate Bay. While fascinating, this longstanding legal battle is evidence only of its futility. There’s much more detail here that I don’t have time for right now.
  • The most problematic is the formation of the copyright gangsters, as foretold by Charles Stross in Accelerando. Various unethical law firms have been mass suing downloaders, with or without the original copyright owners blessing. One of the first big suits was over The Hurt Locker and sued over 20,000 people. Included a dead man. The lawsuit died, mostly due to lack of convincing evidence, but not before all the defendants were offered settlements of a couple thousand dollars. There is no record of how many people paid up. As far as I know, mass law suits never get to court because they would have to be prosecuted in all of the counties that the defendant live in. But the real money is the in the settlements anyway. Tactics have included bullying artists into participating in law suits and sending subpoenas (to ISPs for subscribers to sue) without the approval of a judge. This is the form that modern racketeering takes.

But there are realistic responses to illegal downloading. Rather than trying to ban it, one could attempt to provide a service better than the unclean masses who upload movies, games, and music. PC gaming has done pretty well to this. Valve may have the single best answer to copyright infringement. Steam, their gaming platform and store, makes buying games a better option than acquiring them illegally. The video industry is not without its own realists. Netflix and Hulu are, like Valve, working to make the legal viewing of TV shows and movies a better option than downloading. Netflix as gone on the record acknowledging this and points to researching showing that BitTorrent traffic dips every time Netflix becomes available in a new location. Obviously  they will not displace illegal downloading completely, but Valve, Netflix, and Hulu remove one of the prime reasons for downloading something illegally, lack of easy access. If the only way to watch an old favorite show is to spend a hundred dollars to buy it, downloading seems like the obvious choice. If you can watch it free with ads or without for a small monthly subscription that offers you lots of other shows too, downloading illegally loses much of its draw.

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