Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Copyright Debate

Today, I read up for a bit on how the case of MegaUpload was going. As it turns out, they are working on a new service to be released a year after MegaUpload being taken offline. The few details disclosed about the new service are a good example of one of the points in the copyright debate. It inspired me to do a piece on the whole debate.

Basically, the copyright debate takes place in two areas. There's the practical area and the ideological one. I'll start with the practical part because, well, it's more practical.

The whole piracy play is a cat and mouse game. Once a certain way of piracy gets closed down, piracy evolves to its next form that isn't blocked. This effect can be seen when looking at the history of file sharing, like when you look at the stories of Napster and Kazaa.
However, it can also be seen in more recent developments. When The Pirate Bay was facing legal consequences in a number of countries, it started adopting a new technique (magnet links) through which the legal processes against them would become invalid. When you release a new sophisticated form of DRM, it may take a couple of days longer before it has been cracked. And now there's the new mega site is planning to use a technique that makes them unaware of the content of what is uploaded to them, making sure they can't be held responsible for ignoring illegal content on their network. Basically, the copyright industry will never be able to catch up with the pirates.

The proponents of the copyright system as it is right now are eager to come up with a way to more fundamentally tackle the problem. That's basically what the proposals like SOPA and PIPA were all about. They were meant to give more powerful tools to the copyright owners to shut down piracy and also defined piracy in terms very loose as to also encapsulate future forms.
However, there are some serious problems with it. The problems specific to systems mentioned above is that they put amazing amounts of power into the hands of the copyright owners, had systems in which the mere allegation of copyright infringement would be punished very harshly without substantial evidence or the possibility of a defense and finally that it held websites fully responsible for anything posted by users, meaning that it would have become impossible to have user contributions that aren't all moderated by hand before publicizing them.

However, there is a more substantial problem with the whole idea of tackling the copyright defense in any fundamental way that circumvents the whole cat and mouse game. Basically, it's about how bits and bytes don't have a meaning all by them selves. This is what the new mega site is such a good example of. Basically, what it does is that you will create a key and encrypt the data you upload to them with it. As such, the data stored by Mega does not have a meaning without the key. Neither does the key have a meaning without the data. However, a user receiving the key and the data through separate channels will be able to decrypt the data and assign a meaning to it again. In this example, never did any one service ever share copyrighted data and yet the data came from one person and ended up at another person.

This is basically the big problem. The lesser version of this problem is that you would have to inspect everything a user does - like reading personal mails - in order to make sure he doesn't send copyrighted materials. And the bigger version is that even then you can never reliably check what is copyrighted material and what is not as shown with the Mega system. The only thing one could do is put systems in place that invade our privacy by checking everything we do and at the same time taking down any websites that might facilitate piracy, which is nothing short of a full-fledged censorship system.

If there are so many practical problems with copyright then you might wonder why it is defended so doggedly. And that's when you come to the ideological part of the debate. Often copyright is taken for granted, but in fact it's very much a artificial construct. Something made by man that should not be taken at face value but instead carefully inspected for its advantages and disadvantages.

Looking at the history of copyright we'll actually see that it is an ancient system created in England centuries ago and having undergone many revisions since. What also springs out is that from the very start it was mostly used to the profit of not those who made the copyrighted material but those who distributed it. That's also who currently profit from it right now, the big music and video companies. The fact that those companies have insane amounts of money is not only a testimony to the unnatural distribution of money the copyright laws cause, but also something that greatly eschews the entire debate, as much of it is fought in courtrooms and through lobbying.

When we look at the arguments against the current copyright system you'll quickly stumble upon the one about shoulders of giants. We stand on those shoulders when doing just about anything. When the field of physics is advanced through new theories, for example, we build upon what previous physicists have done, perhaps most notably Newton and Einstein. This goes for the creation of culture as well. For example, story telling is just about never done without drawing inspiration from other works. Oftentimes, authors state their sources of inspiration or their "influences". Other times, trhe story is even stated to be a retelling of another story. Notable examples include the way the Grimm brothers became the authority on folk tales by publishing them and the Walt Disney becoming big by making films out of fairy tales. Copyright is a construct that limits us in basing our work off of other works and thus can be said to have a negative effect on the development of our cultural heritage.

We have to look a little harder to find the arguments defending the copyright system. This is because it is so often taken for granted and the battle is often fought through implications rather than arguments. There's always the ads we have been given over the past decade or so that say piracy is equal to stealing, but there isn't any argument to be found in that. This is because these ads do not try to substantiate that claim in any way and instead work by trying to instill a sense of right and wrong in people based on emotional value. On top of that, this argument usually completely skips the distinction between software and a car, which is the same as the reason why one is shared through piracy and the other isn't: software can be copied with barely any cost to it, while a car can't be.

The one argument that does sometimes come up is what we stand to lose by abolishing copyright. And there is most definitely some truth to this. There is little doubt about it that some artists would disappear in a world without copyright. However, this can be countered by the sentiment that music or art or writing as a whole won't and other artists that won't show up on people's radars in the current system would be able to flourish in a copyrightless system. In fact, the way some artists are already coping with the fact that piracy is so common these days proves that there are profitable models for - for example - making music in a world without copyright.
Once again, there is no doubt that the current situation would change radically. One example I think it often left out of this debate is the one of single player computer games. It's pretty clear that the landscape of single player games would radically change if there wasn't copyright to protect it. Big companies making lots of money off games created by large teams define what is possible in those realms and those seem likely to be hurt the worst by such a change. The argument goes, though, that we shouldn't judge the current system to be better than the one that we would end up with if copyright is abolished.
The things that we know up front are that the fields where copyright currently exists wouldn't disappear if there no longer were such a thing as copyright and that it is quite probable that distributors won't be making quite as much money. Unless you are in the distribution business, neither of those sounds like a bad thing.

That's the copyright discussion as far as I know it. I have tried to give a good and objective perspective on this all, but I have probably failed considerable since I am a human and I do have an opinion on the matter. I also might be unaware of some of the arguments in this discussion. However, I do think it's a decent overview, even if a bit tainted by my personal view of the matter.