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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Are you a Copyright Criminal?

Many of you are no doubt familiar with LimeWire - a file sharing site.

It was shut down today.  The site now displays this message:  "This is an official notice that LimeWire is under a court-ordered injunction to stop distributing and supporting its file-sharing software. Downloading or sharing copyrighted content without authorization is illegal."

There is a story over at Wired related to this as well providing a little more background.

The action is the result of the RIAA (Recording Industry of America) suing over copyright infringement and should not really be a surprise to anyone.  Allegedly millions of people illegally shared songs on this service over many years.

Many of you reading this probably thinks "Oh, my kid does that" or thinks "who cares, its just big business after the little guy and its better to shut down LimeWire than the RIAA suing me or someone I know".

Well, here's my take.

The notion of copying something for your own use has been around quite a while - probably since the time that writing first appeared.  Copies of documents like religious scriptures abound in the world and, in fact, many of the books and historical records we have today would not exist without the manual "copying" people did in the ancient past.

In the ancient world, at least, the idea of copies was to "get the word out".  There were libraries, such as the library at Alexandria, Egypt, where you could find books - but the only way to "make a copy" was by hand.  This is how many classical works were passed through the dark ages.

Copying in the dark ages was a time consuming business.  Vellum was often used with hand made inks and writing utensils.  The details are incredible.

Some time in the 1500's the idea of intellectual property emerges.  This is the basis for today's copyright notion that the RIAA is suing under.  Its first used when royalty "granted" rights to something to someone.  The first legal use of the words "intellectual property" in the US occurs in the 1840's in a patent case.

For me personally, though, the "intellectual property" concept takes shape starting in grade school.  For most as old as I am the old "mimeographed worksheet" was a staple of the grade school class room.  You will recall the nasty, smelly, purple ink process that yielded the dreaded "math worksheet".  For the rich there was the process of xerography which allowed one to dispense with the mess and smell.  This was far more expensive than the clunky mimeograph machine which most small businesses and schools could afford.

Personally, though, these devices were not available to me in grade school for book reports and so on - so I relied on the method used for millennium: hand copying.

By the time I reached high school in the early 1970's, however, xerography had become accessible - at least in the local  libraries - where I could go to work on homework or personal projects.  This made it easy to locate a reference or article, copy it for a buck, and take it home to peruse at your leisure.

Similarly, you might have a cassette tape copy of a friends' vinyl LP to listen to while doing said projects - usually made by hand.

During this time we were all protect by the "Fair Use" clause of the Copyright law.  Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship (from Wikipedia).

In the intervening years between then and today, however, things changed.

Schools realized that making xerox copies for students, or getting students to make xerox copies, was far cheaper than buying a text book.  So you might be required to read an article for a class in which case you were provided a copy or you made a copy of it yourself.

As this processes expanded you ended up with businesses like this.  The Copyright Clearance Center's sole purpose is to license you the right to copy something for use in the scenarios I described.  Lawyers discovered that copyrights and ownership rights were being violated and created a business model to effectively clamp down on the process.   The RIAA tactics were pioneered by the CCC-type businesses.  The idea is to get all the large players like schools and universities, to go along, and sit back and collect the royalties.

But where does this take us...?

Certainly much of the Internet is made up of links.  Links to images like the one at the beginning of this article.  Links to product images, links to pictures, links to stories, blogs, text, product data sheets, etc.  Virtually everything you see on web pages is linked in.  Who own these images, the text describing the book you want to buy, the picture of the reviewer, the review he wrote, etc.?

I foresee that the next issue will effectively be a "link tax".  Its already started in France where Google lost the right to index books without compensating the copyright owners.  Google claimed that doing this was "fair use" but the French think otherwise.  There have been other suits against Google as well - who owns the little image that comes up when do a search?  Is that fair use? Who will pay?

I also don't like that technological advances that allow people to easily and unknowingly violate the law don't share in the responsibility we people do.  For example, in the early iPod days Apple's "don't steal music" was particularly disingenuous.  After all, what was the point of "Mix. Rip. Burn."?

My wife and I argue on this last point - she rightly points out that its the person committing the crime.  While I agree I think that companies advertising and promoting "criminal" activities like "Rip. Mix. Burn" should make them share in the blame as well.

(You can bet it won't be Google.)

The copyright law is old - its been around for centuries - and its not keeping up with the modern digital age.  In the world of physical print its easy to track things - as with a library.  But the notion of "Fair Use" ended with the invention of xerography in 1942 and its subsequent commercialization in the 1950's.

Ultimately the "cost" of using content on the Internet will fall on you and I - so hold onto your wallet.

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