Copyright in the land of the free (as in beer)

As with many laws established long ago, copyright is struggling to define itself in the internet age. Indeed, copyright is one of the most talked about theories in many technology-centered publications. It has been debated from both sides, with viewpoints all across the spectrum. Some see copyright as a hindrance to the progression of society, blocking new ideas and restricting the creativity of many. However, another viewpoint is that copyright protects the interests of those who put forth money and effort into producing a unique creation.

Ideally, copyright could work both ways, ensuring that creators receive fair compensation for their ideas, while not restricting benefits to society.

The internet has turned the standard business model on its head. In the past, creators would produce something, either a literary article, piece of software, or album, and sell it to consumers, usually through a distributor. However, the internet has introduced new avenues for consumption that have had catastrophically good and bad results on this model.

With the advent of online distribution, content producers can be their own distributors, offering goods online for direct purchase by consumers. However, the internet has also brought peer-to-peer filesharing along with it. As easy as it is to obtain something legally, it can sometimes be even easier to obtain it illegally.

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, has been applied to try to combat this problem. By controlling the usage of digital content, providers hope to discourage the illegal sharing of that content. However, this has been seen to backfire on many producers. Video game publishers who impose draconian copy protection measures on their consumers actually push people towards illegal downloads. When DRM malfunctions, an occurrence that happens far too often, legitimate consumers can actually be locked out of software they purchased legally. To avoid these headaches, many turn to filesharing networks, where video games and movies can be downloaded with their content protection already disabled. In many cases, even with the risks of downloading copyrighted materials, preference is shown to the pre-cracked files due to the superior consumption experience. Compare the following processes for watching the latest HD movie on your TV:

Blu-ray

  1. Drive to BlockBuster or BestBuy, or wait three days for Netflix
  2. Put the disc in your player, pray that it isn’t scratched from more than one use
  3. Wait for Sony’s advertisement to play
  4. Wait for the first warning to go away – “FBI Warning”
  5. Wait for the second warning to go away
  6. Watch a painful clip warning you of the dangers of “stealing” movies
  7. Watch an unskippable trailer for a movie that’s either come out already, or you would never want to watch anyways
  8. Watch another unskippable trailer
  9. Finally get to the main menu, hit play
  10. Send movie back if you rented it, or put in your comically oversized DVD storage unit

Filesharing

  1. Find the movie online, click download
  2. Wait an hour for the movie to download (or less if you have a fast connection)
  3. Connect computer to TV. Hit play. Movie starts.

With these stark differences, it isn’t hard to see why some prefer downloading movies versus purchasing them. The most absurd part of this is that since move movies downloaded illegally have already had their ads stripped away, only the legitimate purchasers must sit through warning after warning and then watch ads that can’t be skipped. What industry is there where producers can hold users captive like this? In a supermarket, if I don’t need any milk, I can skip that aisle and go straight to the cereal. When I buy a TV, I don’t have to sit through 10 minutes of advertisements for “other great Samsung products” every time I turn it on.

This type of mistake has been repeated in many other industries struggling to comprehend just how significantly the internet has changed their business model. The London Times lost 90% of its online readership after instituting a paywall. Still, there are no plans to go back to an ad-supported version.

While iTunes has simultaneously created and captured the digital music market, the restrictions placed on downloads from the iTunes Music Store only recently became unencumbered by DRM. Previously, songs you purchased would only be playable on an Apple device. By moving with the market instead of against it, Apple has shown common sense that seems to be lacking in many segments.

Part of the problem seems to be a holdover from a time before the internet, where publishing a book required the coordinated efforts of many parties. With the advent of shared hosting for $5 a month, anyone can now publish their thoughts online for basically peanuts. (This is the part of the movie where the actor looks at the camera and says the title of the movie).

With always declining prices on digital music equipment and computers, anyone can be their own producer, distributing on iTunes or Amazon. No longer are teams of marketers needed to promote a new artist’s single, since a top result on Hype Machine can rocket you to the top.

The fact is, no DRM is perfect. There will always be the Analog Hole, and history has shown how quickly even the toughest encryption on digital media has been broken. Not until media is distributed by encrypting it with someone’s public key will we be able to eliminate digital copies. Once a single copy is made, it doesn’t matter how strong the DRM originally was.

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