30 Dec 2014

Copyright Law in the Internet Age

As music, movies, books are other media are being copied online by the billion, it has led to a huge conflict with copyright law. Part of this conflict is intrinsic, because of the tension between consumers wanting free media and producers wanting to charge for it. But are there other parts of the conflict that can be eliminated, by modifying copyright law?


Copyright law was developed ages before the Internet came about. Might it require some changes to keep pace with the world? If you were designing copyright law from scratch today, what form would it take? 


I propose legalising downloading copyrighted media (music, music videos, movies, books, etc) using BitTorrent or other “pirate” mechanisms, as long as you pay the copyright owner within, say, a month. Whether I download something from an official channel or from BitTorrent shouldn’t matter. If I download a Bluray version of a movie from BitTorrent, and I pay the same price as the same resolution of the movie available from other channels, like iTunes or Google Play or a physical Bluray disk, I should be legally in the clear.


What society needs is for the content owners to be compensated for their efforts, so that they can continue to sustainably create media. In the pre-Internet world, this compensation took the form of restricting the ability of others to make copies (copy-right: the right to make copies). As long as we’re talking about physical cassettes, CDs, etc, this was fine. But this doesn’t make sense in the Internet world, because if there’s one thing the Internet and computers are good at, it’s the ability to make perfect copies in their millions and disseminate them widely. Out-lawing that merely makes hundreds of millions of people criminals, which in turn erodes respect for the law, and invites people to try to figure out which laws to follow and which to break, and when. Is that the kind of society we want to live in?


So, the law should stop worrying about copying per se, and focus on what matters — compensating the content creators, so that they can continue creating. Legalising file sharing would mean a lot of flexibility for users, such as being able to download media in the format of their choice. And able to able to convert it to a different format for playback on, say, an iPad. Users will be able to legally back up the media, or sync it with Dropbox to their devices, and being able to play them with software of their choice, and on the OS of their choice, like Linux, whether or not it’s “supported” by Hollywood and friends. Users will also be able to opt out of DRM, which in turn permits abuses like the Sony rootkit scandal, and results in Blu-ray players requiring to be thrown out and replaced after some years, just because of DRM.


When copyright law enables these scandals, users will reject copyright law, and they have, in the hundreds of millions or maybe even billions. This is a lose-lose scenario: users are treated unfairly and are legally exposed and content creators aren’t compensated.


Yes, all these freedoms for users come at the cost of decreased flexibility for content creators, but why do content creators need that flexibility in the first place? 


If you tend to think that content owners, being owners of the media, should have the right to decide how the media should be distributed, whether or not we agree with their choices, you’re probably thinking within the framework of the existing law. Over time, we get used to the laws that exist and tend to think of the rights they provide as being natural. Yet there’s nothing natural about about them. That’s merely a result of the law that, at one point in time, was found suitable. Perhaps a different version of the law, with different tradeoffs, makes more sense now?


The law should focus on protecting what’s important, which is to compensate content creators so that they can keep creating. It should not criminalise trivia such as downloading as mkv instead of mp4, or downloading from one source instead of other, or rejecting DRM, or backing up your media, and so on.

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