Most people will be familiar with that annoying, unskippable anti-piracy film that makes inane and impertinent statements (you wouldn’t steal a car, &c) to make its point that piracy of films is stealing. Well, I wouldn’t steal a car, or a handbag, or even a movie, but this has nothing to do with piracy because contrary to the opinion of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is the organisation that I believe made the film, piracy is not stealing.
The US Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Dowling v. United States in 1985 said that
…interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use. Infringement implicates a more complex set of property interests than does run-of-the-mill theft, conversion, or fraud.
The purpose of copyright law is to ensure that the originators of creative works profit from their labour and thus encourage the creation of such works. Piracy undermines that goal, and is therefore punishable in law. The problem faced by copyright holders in the digital age is that it is almost impossible to prevent people from making easy, cheap copies of their work, which makes copyright law extremely difficult to enforce.
In the pre-digital age when copyright law was enacted, it was not possible to easily separate the intellectual property protected by copyright from the physical medium on which it was printed or pressed. Today the physical medium is nothing more than packaging that can be discarded and it is trivially easy to make an almost unlimited number of digital copies of the copyrighted work, and then distribute it worldwide using equipment no more complex or expensive than a personal computer and a connection to the internet.
So how do the creators of these works and their distribution channels counter piracy? Not very well, in my opinion. They make silly films like the one referred to earlier, which actually encourage piracy because at least the film isn’t incorporated into the pirated version, or they try to make copying harder by using encryption techniques. The problem with this avenue is that, in order to use the legal product, it has to be possible to decrypt it. This means that the encryption algorithms are trivial to break and bypass, which pirates do all the time.
Some artists and publishers are exploring innovative ways of generating income from their works without embarking on the fruitless task of trying to defeat pirates. They are giving their work away by making it available as a free download from the internet, then using the internet traffic as a revenue generator through the use of such things as Google AdSense. Their fans, if the product is good enough, will frequently pay for a ‘premium’ edition containing, for example, additional material that was not made available via free download. Once artists have built up a significant following they can also generate income by giving live concerts and so on.
It remains to be seen whether or not these are viable alternatives to the old, outdated model; but one thing is certain, and that is that the old model just doesn’t work anymore and will be replaced by something new.
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License