Illegal File Sharers Beware

President Bush signed into law a new cabinet-level position whose sole responsibility will be to monitor and enforce IP violations. This mainly includes copyright violations, which is putting the Executive Branch in the pocket of the RIAA, MPAA, and more. What this means for the illegal file-sharing crowd is still up in the air, but it isn’t gonna be good. I’m glad I’m no longer part of that “bridge to nowhere.” Armed with things like the “Patriot Act”, does the government even need an excuse to snoop on each and every person’s Internet connection in the country?

This sucks. So now instead of copyright reform and mending this incredibly broken IP situation, we break it even more by reinforcing the RIAA and MPAA. To some, this may sound like a good idea. “We’re defending the creative minds in the country and their Intellectual Property, and we’re taking the ‘War on Piracy’ seriously.” The problem is that most of the people who make these arguments don’t actually understand the situation. I wish I had more time to write about this now (maybe after midterms). All I can say is that if you think our current copyright policy needs stricter enforcement to protect our artists, you’re wrong! Check out Free Culture.

On a side note, one thing I don’t like, which others have pointed out, is that Joe Biden loves this sort of thing (stricter enforcement of copyright), and he’s got pals at the RIAA and MPAA that tell him the “truth about copyright.” This is in contrast to Obama’s position. Joe needs to wake up and smell the coffee on this.

Burden of Proof

According to Cory Doctorow’s latest article in the Guardian, copyright holders (like the RIAA, MPAA, etc.) are lobbying in governments here and abroad to force ISPs to pull the plug on customers who are “caught” transmitting or receiving illegal copyrighted material. That much isn’t necessarily a bad idea. After all, frequent violators may be proving that they don’t “deserve the privilege” of accessing the Internet. What really catches in his craw (and mine) is that they don’t want to have to prove anything. That’s right. The burden of proving their accusations is far too great, but they still feel like the “3 accusations and you’re out policy” is a good one. Never mind that they recently accused a laser printer of downloading the newest Indiana Jones movie. Surely everyone should just take their accusations as pure truth. Doctorow feels like we should hold copyright holders similarly accountable: 3 false accusations and they should have their copyright enforcing privileges on the Internet revoked.

Review: Free Culture

I finally finished reading Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig a few weeks ago. With my impending exams, I decided I should wait to write a review. All-in-all this was probably one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Normally I am not a fan of non-fiction, but this book tackled a subject that I was very interested in: freedom.

Lessig is a law professor from Stanford who has dedicated a large chunk of his career to copyright law. His interest in constitutional law led him to this statement:

The Congress shall have Power [. . .] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. –US Constitution (via Wikipedia)

The key phrase in that statement, for Lessig and many others, is the term “limited Times”. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the subject of public domain. I found it interesting mainly because before reading this book, I had almost no idea such a thing existed. See, I’m not very old (24), and I have very little experience with copyright. What I learned from Lessig in this book is that there’s a thing called a public domain. Any books (or other works) whose “copy right” has expired enters this domain. In the public domain, no one owns the rights to the book. Anyone is free to reproduce it, republish it, modify it, and make any other number of changes to it, and needs no one’s permission. Now, I had been vaguely familiar with the concept of public domain from things like Project Gutenberg, but I mainly thought that this was only for really old books (say over 100 years old). What I did not understand is that up until the beginning of the 1900’s, works entered the public domain fairly quickly after they were published. Before 1909, any published work could receive a copyright in the US if you filed the correct paperwork with the US Copyright Office. The term for the copyright was 14 years. After 14 years, the copyright was renewable for one additional 14 year term at the copyright owner’s discretion. Thus, after a maximum of 28 years, any published works entered the public domain. This short term of copyright allowed many adaptations of older works, for example Walt Disney was quickly able to make a film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland without securing any sort of permission from Carroll or his estate. The work had moved to the public domain. In fact, Disney and his company profited heavily from the adaptation of other works, including the creation of a well-known mouse named Mickey, who began as Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was actually a parody of a comedic film by Buster Keaton. Disney made this parody and adapted it, making it a hit by being the first cartoon to have sound. How different would the world be today without Mickey Mouse? Yet if Disney had not incorporated the idea of adding sound to his cartoon (films had already begun using sound), Mickey’s long-lasting popularity may not have stuck around.

Ever since 1909, however, the US government has been incrementally increasing the term of copyrights. Where they started out at a maximum of 28 years, they are now up to 95 or 120 years or 70 years after the author’s death. Where before only certain works were even copyrightable and a specific request had to be made in order to obtain a copyright, now virtually anything imaginable can be copyrighted, and the copyright is inherent as soon as pen touches paper (no formal request needed). This change has caused an inordinate amount of work to be held out of the public domain, often with no good reason.

The great thing about this book is Lessig’s approach to presenting the problems and his arguments. He doesn’t resort to extreme ideas to counteract current copyright policy. He never argues to abolish copyright and make creativity a free-for-all. He believes that creators deserve and need the right to protect their work. He simply wants, as many want: a more prudent copyright system. One that balances the power of creators with that of the public good from works entering into the public domain. One that will promote a tradition of creativity that our country was founded on. He diffuses many counter-arguments by simply addressing the problem from the other side of the table. It makes his arguments rock solid. Plus, he uses a number of examples throughout the book to demonstrate how and why the law was different in the past and how it compares to today. Unfortunately, a problem like the one with copyright law does not garner people’s attention until they see the effects of it. Those who are not actively attempting to create something new from something old do not understand the importance of what a barrier this places on creativity and why that’s such a bad thing. Therefore, he also takes the time to demonstrate how crippling current copyright law is to creators.

Another of the main issues addressed by the book is piracy, most specifically music piracy. This is because the book was published when the ideas of copyright law were being brought under question in regards to file-sharing of music. Lessig also addresses these issues, specifically how the Internet has changed copyright law and how the corporate industries are attempting to preserve their profits by exploiting their copyrights under the guise of protecting the artists and creators. The RIAA and MPAA abhor the idea of a public domain. Unfortunately, they have gotten so big and have so much financial backing that they are able to pressure the government with what’s best for their bottom-line.

Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to everyone so that they can gain an understanding of the system in the US and how much it has changed for the worse over the past 100 years. Lessig’s examples perfectly illustrate the complicated situations that copyright law creates and how to understand them without a legal degree. My only minor complaint, which can’t really be attributed to Lessig, is that the law is very complicated sometimes and understanding the problems it presents can be a bit of a challenge. This makes it a book where you have to stop and think about things once or twice before you fully understand it, which may be a turn-off for some. The full contents of this book is available for free online via a Creative Commons license. However, it is a very good idea to buy it if you’d like to do more than browse.

4.5/5

Giving Copyright ‘The Slip’

Nine Inch Nails has pre-released their new album, ‘The Slip‘, online (via Chicagoist). I’m not really a NIN fan, but there’s something a little different about this one. They’ve released it completely for free under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-SA) in many different formats (including lossless). Apparently, Mr. Reznor feels that Radiohead, who gave users the option to “choose their own price” to download their previous album, was nothing more than a marketing scam to arouse interest and sell a regular album in sub-standard quality. In addition to providing top-quality music files in various formats, the NIN are making a bold statement with this album, especially for mainstream artists, and it’s right there is black-and-white on their website:

we encourage you to
remix it,
share it with your friends,
post it on your blog,
play it on your podcast,
give it to strangers,
etc.

I can only hope this trend toward Free Culture continues. I don’t think that everything needs to be free (at least initially), but this album’s copyright is merely an example of the other extreme to a completely restrictive copyright, which doesn’t allow anyone to more than listen to it for the next 95 years. Yes, that’s how long current copyrights last.