Copyrights and Copywrongs

Posted on: 22 December 2011 by Alexander Hay

While copyright infringement is a chronic problem nowadays, a culture change rather than yet more legislation and legal action would let artists and producers make more money, and leave us and the Web well alone

Does information need permission to be free?Copyright is a tricky issue these days. Beyond the phenomenon of 'patent trolls' (where companies exist mainly to sue others for violating 'their' software innovations) and the perversity of patents ensuring life-saving medication can sometimes be prohibitively expensive, there is nonetheless an argument to be made for copyright laws.

Fittingly, given that this article is being written a few days before Yuletide, it was Charles 'Christmas Carol' Dickens who made one of the more compelling arguments for being able to sue the legs off anyone who ripped off your work.

In 1842, while on tour in the United States, he was shouted down quite brutally for calling for an international copyright law. In a country where it was quite acceptable to publish pirate editions of another's work, especially Dickens', this was anathema, and preluded similar screams of outrage that take place today whenever anyone dares complain about the widespread piracy that takes place on the Web.

Again, there are vested interests involved. Whereas many American publishers were freely engaged in print piracy back then, so many IT companies today (coincidentally, often also American) make a considerable profit from providing the (legal) means to the (illegal) end of downloading lots of free media.

Fleecing an artist is, of course, no more justifiable when you're downloading their magnum opus via Limewire than it was when - for example - DC comics made a great deal of money out of Superman, without particularly deigning to share it with his creators, until m'learned friends got involved.

Indeed, if the archetypical bent record label boss or publisher and the illegal downloader have anything in common, it's an over-inflated sense of entitlement. While some glibly reply that live performances will become the new revenue stream for musicians, for example, this assumes the current appetite for live music will last, and that it can survive quite apart from people actually buying and listening to music too.

But what to do? Many a musician built their careers on tape trading and many an author built his or her audience via free library books. If downloading is a rip off, isn't lending your friend your book or buying a second hand CD just the same thing? What if a musician's most loyal fans who pay a fortune to see him play live also download his or her music illegally? If getting music or books for free is wrong, isn't selling them for a cost so low other retailers can't compete also immoral?

It is ultimately a hard question to answer, mainly because it involves so many conflicting rights and issues of freedom. One possible solution is a conservative one, proposed by the writer Robert Levine, where legislation and laws not only further prohibit copyright infringement but also support independent bookshops and other forms of retail, alongside taxing the Web for revenue that would then be divided amongst artists.

This nonetheless is as prescriptive as the music industry's ultimately pyrrhic victory over Napster, and will only make some ever more determined to violate the law. In any case, the genie is out of the bottle - there may be no way of putting it back, with heavy-handed attempts to do so, like America's proposed (and intrusively sinister) SOPA law doing more harm than good.

Instead, the problem should be seen not as a legal issue but a cultural one. There is no reason why people don't pay for media beyond there being enough people who have convinced themselves and others that it is perfectly acceptable to download copyrighted material without permission. If viewed like an endemic social problem, like graft or tax evasion, rather than a criminal or civil matter, it may then be seen as an argument that can be won.

So let's propose such a cultural shift. I use YouTube a lot, mainly to listen to music. What I do, however, when I hear something I really like, is buy the CD and then listen to that instead. Do you enjoy watching a TV show or film online? Buy them on DVD when and if possible. If people did likewise with mix-tapes, or downloadable playlists, the artists who entertained the most would get remunerated for providing what is, after all, a service.

Combine this with a royalty system, like that proposed by Levine, and we won't have to choose between freedom of information and freedom to access it. (In any case, the two are intertwined.) We need to accept, however, that we need to support those who inform and entertain us. One good turn, after all, deserves another.

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Alexander Hay

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