The digital copyright fight

Copyright is exactly what it says it is: The right to copy something. Most often accompanied by the words “All Rights Reserved”, indicating that the protection is on more than just copying the work — other rights, such as those to perform or broadcast the material are included.

The concept exists to protect the content creator, and allow them to profit on their creations, and to prevent their work from being co-opted for others’ profit.

Not a bad thing.

The combination of digital formats and high-speed internet has created a world full of illegal copiers. Copyright was not designed to deal with this — it was created to prevent individuals from taking others’ work as their own, and to prevent those who would leverage their own ability to distribute copies from making a profit without having to compensate the creator of the content they sell. The current scenario — where information simply propegates itself through a mass of end users who care little (if at all) about the idea of making a profit — was likely unimaginable when the first copyright law appeared nearly 300 years ago.

But copyright is what there is. It being the only weapon available, copyright owners find themselves using it as a blunt instrument. Recently, four record labels were awarded $675,000 for the illegal downloading of 30 songs. Earlier this year, the record companies were awarded $1.92 million over a handful of illegal downloads — the equivalent of $80,000 per song.

Keep in mind that these people were not trying to claim the product as their own, or profit from distributing or exhibiting the work. This was for personal use. The retail value of a song is approximately $1. This is the equivalent of being sued for $80,000 for stealing somebody’s (cheap 99 cent) pen.

Other industries are doing similarly crazy things: eBook sellers maintain control of their customer’s virtual bookshelf, and retain the ability to delete books their customers have bought. When not outrightly deleting items, Amazon still interferes with users’ ability to manage and maintain their own library in the manner they desire.

Movie-makers are confiscating mobile phones at early screenings, perhaps out of some strange belief that professional movie critics are stealing movies, or that people are paying for movies that have been recorded on a mobile phone camera.

All these examples show the same thing: Copyright is not a tool that is made to be used to prevent propogation of digital media via the internet.

What is the solution?
This is the big question — copyright holders want to ensure that every person who owns a copy has paid for it, but this appears to be a pipe dream: Internet piracy is near impossible to police, and copyright is not the right weapon to police it with. A new system needs to arise through which illegal filesharing can be minimized (copyright holders need to recognise that it will never go away completely), and the original creators can be paid for their work.

The solutions out there are wanting. Mashable suggests that if we do nothing, the problem may just correct itself. This seems doubtful — nobody is really winning in the status quo. Customers are having their books deleted remotely when pursuing legal avenues, and content creators are not being paid when those customers turn to the black market.

Cory Doctorow implies that artists selling their work to the highest bidder is to blame. But the concept of the “starving artist” exists for a reason, and it is difficult to blame people for trying to make what they can out of it. After all, most musicians are broke. Those who “make it” are as often as not one-hit-wonders. His suggestions to industry also fall flat: he describes actions and tactics, rather than strategy. The strategy is what needs change.

What if these industries starting asking what their customers want, instead of trying to convince them to buy the same products they bought ten or twenty years ago? What if they then started to deliver those things their customers appear to want?

Take the motion picture industry as an example: Their customers have the ability to download a movie, or buy it on DVD illegally by the time it hits the theatres. However, their conventional strategy has movies in the theatres exclusively for months before legal DVDs or downloads are available.

This alienates those who are truly excited about a movie. Customers expect to be able to own a copy, and do with it as they please — put it on their shelf of DVDs, on their laptop, et cetera. A large number of potential customers who might buy a legal copy, buy an illegal one instead. This is simply due to a lack of options — the illegal copies are the only option available during the period of time at which the movie’s marketing machine is at its highest pitch. Customers no longer wait; what they want is merely a click of the mouse away.

So why not meet their expectations, and allow them to buy something legally — downloads and DVDs — from the day the movie is released?

This is a lot of work — it will require massive planning, co-ordination, handling relationships with theatres (who presumably enjoy the current set up), taking action to make sure that theatre attendance does not drop too low as a result, and new metrics for success beyond the box office numbers. But the reward would be customers who are happily paying the copyright holders for their copy, more profit (in the long run), and a reduction in piracy.

There are people out there who will refuse to pay for things and steal them, regardless. These are not the people who have made piracy popular. It is people who have expectations of accessibility and flexibility, for whom their only answer is piracy, that have made the Napsters, kaZaas and Pirate Bays of the world into household names.

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