When Copyright Goes Bad

Posted: April 25, 2010 in Consumerism, Culture, Economics, Legal Matters, Media
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I’m not really all that interested in setting the record straight every time I come across some wild claim, bogus argument, or manipulative video. There is simply too much of it. But the video below (which I found on BoingBoing), called When Copyright Goes Bad, just pisses me off.

Much of the video is expertly done in that all the major signposts of a carefully constructed documentary are present, especially visual appeal, threatening soundtrack, slanted commentary, and transparent advocacy. But its basic premise — that copyright law is encroaching upon existing consumer rights — is flatly wrong. The supposed consumer rights this video defends are these:

  • back-up copies
  • format shifting
  • mash-ups/remixing
  • fair use
  • fostering access

The suggestion is that copyright is expanding to make these things illegal, but in fact, it’s the reverse that’s true: emerging technologies now enable home users to make virtually cost-free copies, which is driving demand that, in effect, is rendering copyright obsolete in the same fashion that vehicle speed limits are often moot except to those few singled out for selective enforcement. The law is now hopelessly behind the times when it comes to technologies that make copying so easy that infringing behavior is now wrongly perceived as a consumer right.

At various points in the video, Fred Von Lohman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is featured (unaccountably framed as a big, fat head) talking about copyright. What he says isn’t inaccurate exactly, but rather, is subtly shaped to give the wrong impressions to the easily misled. For example, he says that “copyright has actually been expanding,” which is true as to duration but in no other aspect. (Many copyright experts believe time extensions to copyright protection, at the behest of owners of a few valuable properties, is improper. I agree.) He also says that “copyright law intrudes deeply into our everyday lives,” which is also true but only because we now demand the freedom to illegally copy protected content at will and have grown increasingly aware that this is a legal issue. The entire video uses that same tone, referring to infringers as pirates and terrorists and showing children being frustrated in their innocent attempts to, well, infringe copyright.

This isn’t sudden at all, although Von Lohman¬†says it is. Rather, a decades-long, unsteady equilibrium with infringing technologies such as the photocopier and cassette tape has been upset with the advent of digital technologies that make exact or near-exact copies available on any home computer with copy-and-paste ease. Acts of infringement are so widespread that their illegality is felt a mere irritation by end-users who recognize that everyone is doing it. As with news available for free on the Internet, you’re a chump if you actually pay for content.

Copyright (a subset of intellectual property rights) is difficult for most laypersons to understand precisely because it’s intangible. The rights vest not so much in the copy, embodiment, or medium but in the idea behind an embodiment and the subsequent monopoly right to control fabrication and distribution of copies, whether tangible (e.g., a book or CD) or virtual (e.g., an e-book or mp3). If a cheap, easy way were devised to make fully bound copies of books on paper at the cost of broadband access and hard drive space, there would be demand, and pirates (actually, that’s the correct word despite the untoward associations) would seek to meet the demand. But the book on paper produced by legitimate publishers and copyright holders is already relatively cheap in terms of the content it delivers, and library copies and used book markets make legit copies readily available to anyone without the modest funds necessary to buy first-run books immediately at bookstore prices. No one, BTW, keeps a back-up of a book. If the same were as true of CDs and DVDs, and if digital formats weren’t so vulnerable to data loss and corruption, there would not be such robust file sharing, downloading of illegal copies, creation of back-ups, and format shifting.

If a single copyright holder were insisting that you can’t back up your computer files, I would be surprised. Most software license agreements include allowances for multiple-use installations and back-ups. The real problem is the proliferation of pirated copies of all sorts. That goes to the intent behind copyright, namely, to encourage an environment where content creators are rewarded monetarily for their work. Instead, now that the genie is out of the bottle with respect to illegal copying, the revenue model behind publishing any creative content is failing, just like the revenue model behind serious news gathering and reporting is ebbing away. As I have warned before, when the financial reward disappears, so does the incentive to create, and so we’ll be left with a vast archive of content available to everyone but only degraded new content.

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Comments
  1. I don’t know all the ins and outs of copyright law. But I know when something’s shared or borrowed–name the original artist–as opposed to stolen or hacked. If it’s supported by a business conglomerate, you can’t download it; you can’t copy it; you can’t print it. You may not be able to look at it. More safeguards protect the money-making goods all the time. Pirated work is usually obvious: poor quality by every measure.
    Likewise, I don’t know the ins and outs of “paying the artist his or her due,” except that are now, and always have been, great artists who will never be paid their due. Simultaneously and inevitably, many fantastically popular and profit-producing works are nothing but dreck and the artists do quite well.
    Thanks to technology, anyone who sits down and string enough sentences together can write a novel. Anyone with a newish cellphone can make a video. Musicians can record their work and promote and sell it on-line through a service and/or on their own. New services to promote and protect original work spring up almost as fast as social networks.
    Naturally, there’s a terrific gush of bad work,lame efforts, and white noise. So what?
    Personally, I think worse crimes exist than botched artistic endeavors. This country detests failure. But great art can’t exist without the bad. True artists need to risk failure or settle for something less than their best. Of course, what I consider “less than their best” is probably what most people want.

    • Brutus says:

      Prohibitions against copying protect individuals as much as business conglomerates, though it typically takes deep pockets to police one’s own copyrighted works. The other elements of your comment go to the economics and democraticization of media I’ve referred to before. I fully agree that when the means of production are so cheap and universally available, a lot of crap is produced. Similarly, lots of artists aren’t recognized in their times while lots of noise is. It’s not clear to me that those effects are attributable to copyright issues, but I do worry that if there is no financial reward for anyone because illegal copying is so rampant, the entire business environment in which artists operate will end up thoroughly debased.

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