Piracy

Firstly, an amusing website: http://www.thepirategoogle.com/

Secondly, regarding the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia; the one good thing to come of it, in my opinion, is that people are reminded of what actual piracy is. It involves armed robbery, hostage-taking, and death. Whether making unauthorized copies of a movie or song is immoral or not, it is nothing like actual piracy in its severity. No internet pirate ever killed someone.

Now, on to the Pirate Bay trial. So, the legal debate itself – whether or not providing links to copyrighted material is illegal when you are not providing the material itself – is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant. I tend to think the Pirate Bay should have won the trial on legal grounds, but I can understand the case against, given current copyright law. Really none of that matters, though; what everyone really cares about is whether or not piracy itself is wrong. Is it even possible to ‘steal’ information?

Well…

Turin’s Manifesto on So-Called Intellectual Property

I like to look at this historically. It used to be that data was intimately bound up with physical property. Before the printing press, copies of books were made by hand; the book was valuable for its content, yes, but primarily because it was rare, difficult to produce, requiring hours and hours of painstaking manual labor. If someone wanted to make a copy of a book they had in their possession, they were free to do so; it would require a lot of work, and the new copy would certainly be theirs, since they created the physical artifact.

Then the printing press came along, and it became easy to make many copies of something – if you owned a large and expensive piece of machinery and could put in enough manual labor to produce a single copy of it. Making one copy and making a thousand copies required the same amount of initial effort, with little extra effort added for each copy. This made it so that, if someone wrote a book, they could publish it and make many copies of it, selling each of them for a slight profit – but that the few other people who had printing presses (not just anyone, since almost no one had such presses) could make their own copies of the book and sell them.

There seems something unfair about this; person A wrote the book, but person B profits from selling it because he just takes the text and prints it, giving nothing to person A. It was because of situations like this that copyright law was invented – giving a limited monopoly on the rights to print copies to the person who wrote the book. Anyone would still be allowed to make their own copies by hand, if they wanted to, but it would require so much effort they would be better off just buying a copy; copyright law’s purpose was to make sure that, when the common man bought a copy of a book, he bought one from the person who actually wrote it.

And copyright was for a limited period of time, because eventually the work would become public knowledge of sorts, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point to restrict access to it. That, or it would be forgotten, and it wouldn’t make sense to stop people from making copies of a book that would otherwise never be read. It’s better not to have laws that destroy knowledge.

In the last few decades there has been a radical shift in how easy it is to make a copy of something. Making an electronic copy of an electronic document takes seconds, and costs next to nothing, and almost any form of data – movie, book, song, whatever – can be made into a digital file. So when someone “pirates” something, breaking copyright law, they’re not anything like the people who set up printing presses to make money from books they did not write; they aren’t making money, the people getting copies of the books and movies and songs aren’t being tricked into paying the wrong person for the content; rather, data has been divorced from physical property, and people are beginning to act accordingly. When books had to be physical objects, it made sense to say that those objects could only be sold by the people who actually wrote the books; now, when books can be costlessly transferred online, it makes little sense to say they still must be paid for, and that it is stealing to create a digital copy of something and give it away for free. Again: Copyright law is a cumbersome legacy from a time when there was no way to transfer information except through physical property.

The basic point I’d like to make is that advances in technology require us to come up with different ways of encouraging the arts. Yes, the existence of internet piracy may cause a problem for the current music and film industries; that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of internet piracy, which is a natural result of the current state of technology. Rather, it means we have to find new ways of making sure artists can make a living from their work.

Before the printing press artists functioned under a patronage system; the poet Vergil, for example, was under the employ of the emperor Augustus. When the printing press came along books could be sold directly to the public for profit, and so capitalism and the arts became bedfellows. Now, with internet piracy making any profit from selling something along the lines of the current system dubious, a new system is needed. What it will be, I don’t know. But something has to change, and getting rid of internet piracy isn’t the answer.

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One Response to Piracy

  1. stephen says:

    Yeah Lawrence Lessig.

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