Piracy and Copyright

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.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

5 Responses to Piracy and Copyright

  1. Peter Reynolds says:

    Absolutely right. The legal definition of theft is “to permanently deprive”. In building my collection of hundreds of HD movies with the excellent assistance of The Pirate Bay, no film copyright holder has been permanently deprived of anything.

    I have no interest at all in the vile experience of attending a cinema and sitting cheek by jowl with a collection of sweaty, unwashed chavs munching popcorn. The answer to this problem for the film industry is to get off their spoilt, lazy backsides, stop whinging and outdo The Pirate Bay. I’d happily pay a few pounds for access to official downloads and would expect a better, more up to date service.

    • Mark says:

      The film industry (and the music industry) don’t have the imagination to move with the times. They cling to a business model that is increasingly outdated, and their business suffers as a result. They claim that they lose x billion every year as a result of piracy, but they have no objective way to justify that claim. If they assume that every copy downloaded is a lost sale, they are grossly overestimating the amount lost; I have downloaded music that I wouldn’t dream of buying in a music store.

      Living in the third world has certain disadvantages, one of which is that bandwidth is quite expensive, so downloading movies isn’t a viable alternative to renting the DVD which is quite cheap. I haven’t actually attended a bioscope (I believe they are now called cinemas) for decades.

  2. Con-Tester says:

    Another point to note is that every digital copy of a digital original is by its nature also an exact copy that is indistinguishable from the original, no matter how many “copy generations” it is removed from the original (barring deterioration from repeated lossy data compression). This is not true for analogue media where repeated copying of copies quickly results in unpalatable versions.

    • Mark says:

      Quite so. That’s why I refer to the medium as mere packaging–the actual property is digital, hence it is trivially easy to make exact copies.

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