Digital Copyright

We’ve got a big problem in America. Well, we’ve got a number of big problems. But one of the biggest, baddest problems is that monstrous leviathan known as copyright law.

Glossing over the issues with traditional copyright law, I want to focus on digital copyright. It has been apparent for some time that there is something dreadfully wrong with the way the US handles copyright management on the Internet. An explosion of annoying DRM, horrific lawsuits, and illegal prosecution has illuminated the fact that our current system for managing content rights is broken.

Currently the DMCA governs much of US digital copyright law. It is based on two tenets: one, content providers are not accountable for user-uploaded content as long as, two, there is a means for quickly taking down content at the request of the owner of any copyrighted material in that offending content.

However, many large content producers have taken to spamming such takedown requests, to the point of absurdity; for example, HBO at one point requested that Youtube take down a video with HBO content – that HBO itself had posted. We also hear the stories about kids being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they pirated a few dozen songs. And in at least one case, monolithic content producers like the MPAA and RIAA have gotten the US government to grossly violate a swath of other laws in order to enforce the DMCA. I speak of the Kim Dotcom raid. Invalid permits, illegal seizure of evidence, failing to unfreeze funds for legal defense, harassment while in custody, illegal withholding of evidence from the defense – the list goes on. It shows that the crusade against copyright infringement has become a farce, and the DMCA is no longer effective.

Ironically, it’s not even clear that taking this hard-line approach is the right way to go about deterring copyright infringement in the first place. Over the last few years, Netflix has grown to comprise around 35% of all Internet traffic during peak hours; it has become the de facto way to easily watch movies and TV online. And while Netflix has grown, file-sharing sites have dropped from 30% to 8% of all traffic. This means that legitimate content consumption has effectively replaced online piracy for movies and TV shows.

Why did this happen? Simple: it became easy to watch movies and TV online without pirating. Pirating doesn’t occur because people don’t want to pay for content. It occurs because they physically can’t pay for content. If they could shell out cash for their favorite movies on demand over the Internet, they would; but until streaming sites like Netflix, there was simply no mechanism for doing so. In trying to protect their content, the MPAA actually encouraged online piracy.

We see the same thing occur with music and video games. In many cases, reduced DRM leads to increased sales. There are two explanations. One, if content is easy to pirate, then people do so quickly after release. Because more people are, say, playing the latest video game, word of mouth spreads faster, so more people end up buying the game legitimately. Second, it could be that when a content creator releases something without heavy DRM, the public collectively takes it as a show of good faith, and would rather purchase the content to show support rather than pirate it and take advantage of the creator.

In any case, we can expect to see a change in digital copyright in the near future. For everyone’s sake (that is, both content creators and consumers), I hope we take the path of less DRM and easier legitimate access to content, rather than the path of heavy-handed piracy suppression and draconian DRM.

Why Richard Stallman is Wrong

I listened to an interview with Richard Stallman, and I truly believe he is wrong regarding the ethics of proprietary software and especially the fundamental beliefs behind computer and Internet usage.

Fundamentally, he assumes incorrect things. He says that people should be able to use computers for free. That doesn’t mean that having people pay to improve the experience is evil. I can decide to gnaw through a tree on my property for free, but I can obviously pay to have it cut down. Similarly, a user should be able to do anything they want for free, but should also be able to pay to either improve the experience, do it faster, or change the feel. The point at which you start getting involved with morality is when the development of proprietary software begins to interfere with the development of open-source software. However, I think that if proprietary software was somehow banned, the rate of development of open-source software would not increase by very much.

Stallman is fine with software developed for a single client, where the developer is paid for the development of free software, rather than the software itself. However, that is fundamentally the same as distributing proprietary software. The cost of the proprietary software represents the effort that went into making it, as well as upkeep for the company including other worker salaries and continued research and development. I do agree that such costs can get out of hand and that a ridiculous amount of money can end up going to those higher up on the corporate ladder. However, that is a necessary evil to keep high quality proprietary software pumping out at a rate faster that free software can be developed.

Although he demands that the functionality of ebooks mirror that of books, he doesn’t seem to make the same connection regarding proprietary software and its real world parallel: non-free services. Although you should be able to live in a house and use public transportation for minimal costs, you almost always buy furniture and hire services to make your life more comfortable. Similarly, proprietary software allows users to improve the aspects of their experience that they want to.

As I said before, Stallman discusses ebooks, and how you should be able to do the same with an ebook as you can with a regular book. However, as a completely different medium, you can’t just demand something like that. Suppose I demand that JPEGs be viewable in the same resolution as the paintings at a museum, for free. That doesn’t even make sense. Being a completely different medium, we need to approach ebooks in a completely different fashion. It would be nice to be able to easily share ebooks or sell them used. However, for an ebook to exist in an economic and material singularity similar to that of a paper book, proprietary software is absolutely necessary. Using Stallman’s logic, I can say that if you want a book to be freely available, write it yourself!

In some ways, open source philosophy (or at least Stallman’s) is like Communism. Everybody pools their resources and in return everybody gets the same, free software. However, as we see with many actual implementations of Communism, somebody who contributes resources may not need all the products. If I spend time coding, I want a video editor, not a database manipulator. The obvious solution is to have both developed and then have those who want the video editor to give their share of resources to that developer, and those who wanted the database software to the other.

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