Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

I am a criminal. I have years of experience with a certain criminal activity. I started in high school on advice from a friend, and pretty soon I found a group of similarly-inclined friends to roll with and we ratcheted up our involvement some more. I learned new techniques in college and avoided the crackdowns happening all around me. I don’t do it anymore, and I’ve never been caught and punished, but I can assure you that if I had been caught, my punishment would have been harsher than if I had kidnapped a child, burned down a house, started a dogfighting ring, or even committed second-degree murder. No joke – it’s that bad.

What am I talking about? File-sharing. Copyright infringement. Piracy. Call it what you want: one way or another it’s about downloading somebody’s property without paying for it. Sixty million Americans are guilty of it, by the way; chances are you’ve done it before, and if you haven’t, your kids probably have BitTorrent chugging along in the other room as we speak (that’s why this page loaded so slowly.) Is it a crime? You’re darn tootin’ it is. Is it wrong? Well…sure, maybe, I guess. Are our laws against it just and effective? Absolutely and emphatically not.

It’s difficult to come up with arguments defending file-sharers that don’t make me, a self-avowed file-sharer, come off as a self-congratulating twit. At the end of the day you’re taking the work product of an artist you love, the very sweat of Beyonce‘s brow, without paying for it in return. That’s not something to be proud of. There’s more in play here, though, than that simple characterization reflects. First of all, the record label generally holds the copyright to a recording and makes most of the money from the sale of a CD. If you steal a CD, you’re only taking a dollar or two our of Beyonce‘s pocket. Mostly you’re robbing the record company — of course, you’re still robbing them, but they’re less sympathetic targets to be sure. It’s a similar deal with online purchases, say, through iTunes: artists get about ten cents off a 99-cent download. In fact, most artists arguably benefit from piracy: they forego the dollar in royalties for increased exposure to their fanbase and attracting new listeners who aren’t interested enough (yet) to pay to hear them, which can translate into increased ticket sales at concerts and more “star power”. For every Kid Rock or Lars Ulrich who complains about evil file-sharers, there’s a hundred lesser-known artists who couldn’t get their music heard until they started giving it away for free on the internet.


Published in: on October 26, 2009 at 10:10 pm Comments Off on Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

Google: Changing Laws Around the World

Colourfull Books

As both sides of the Google books controversy try to work on a revised settlement before the new November 9th deadline, the effects continue to ripple across the globe: on Monday, the European Commission announced plans to work on revising copyright law in the EU. Citing the need to compete on the digital frontier, Commissioner Viviane Reding stated, “Important digitization efforts have already started all around the globe. Europe should seize this opportunity to take the lead, and to ensure that books digitization takes place on the basis of European copyright law, and in full respect of Europe’s cultural diversity. Europe, with its rich cultural heritage, has most to offer and most to win from books digitization. If we act swiftly, pro-competitive European solutions on books digitization may well be sooner operational than the solutions presently envisaged under the Google Books Settlement in the United States.”

This potential change seems to have been triggered by a growing frustration over the last few months with the terms of the US settlement and unwillingness to let Google monopolize digitization. Google has had a harder time arguing its case under current EU law; the concept of fair use generally doesn’t exist in Europe, and violation of copyright often carries strict liability. So far Google has limited its European scanning to works that are at least 150 years old, to avoid issues with copyright. But the settlement as it currently stands doesn’t address a number of European problems (pdf download), and the European Commission began hearings at the beginning of September to discuss specific grievances.


Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 10:49 am Comments Off on Google: Changing Laws Around the World

Suing Google: Don’t Judge an E-book by its Publisher

The W&M chapter of ACS recently co-sponsored an event with the Student Intellectual Property Society with attorney Joanne Zack, a founder of Boni & Zack LLC, who was plaintiff’s counsel in the recently settled Authors Guild v. Google (PDF). The case involved a lawsuit against Google Books for making a searchable database of books which the Authors Guild claimed was massive copyright infringement.

Zack started out the talk with a very succinct overview of copyright law in the U.S., which was sorely needed for many of the copyright greenhorns (like myself) present in the audience. To summarize, Art. I §8 contains the copyright clause which empowers congress to “secur[e] for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” With this grant of authority, congress has passed Title 17 of the U.S. Code, which deals exclusively with copyright, and more importantly in the Google Books case, fair use doctrine, which is covered in 17 U.S.C. §107. §107 makes clear that uses for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research” are not an infringement of copyright depending on the outcome of a balancing test using the so-called “fair use factors”:

1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;


Published in: on April 6, 2009 at 4:53 pm Comments Off on Suing Google: Don’t Judge an E-book by its Publisher

Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates

When I first read about legislation proposing a “copyright czar” (PDF), my first thought was: why are we using ancient monarchical terms to describe a man in our democratic federal government?  The copyright czar will, of course, have to be a man, because the word “czar” is gendered – as far as I can tell from the definitive and authoritative Wikipedia, there’s never been a only been one woman czar(ina), so sorry ladies, you may already be out of the running.  And if we’re going to use fairy tale vocabulary (thanks, drug czar, for starting that trend), what’s next?  The Trademark Baron?  The Patent Troll?  (Actually, that one’s already taken).  Last time I checked, words still have meaning, and so I was puzzled by the choice of one which, as far as I know, means dictator (or, at best, Anastasia’s dad).

While copyright czar is not the technical term used in the legislation, the common usage of the title in the press implies that his function will be far-reaching and authoritative.  Using the title copyright czar seems to vest the holder with a certain power – one that comes with an illimitable reach, unquestionable authority, and, perhaps, free iTunes downloads.  The legislative title for the position is, in fact, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.  It’s IPEC for short, which when sounded out letter-by-letter sounds vaguely scatological, although it’s phonetically superior to its predecessor, the National IP Law Enforcement Coordination Council (NIPLECC).

The copyright czar will undoubtedly have the ability, established (again) by the drug czar, to “wage war.”  “War on Drugs”, meet “War on Pirates.”  Not a bad name for a cause, and one which certainly meets all the fairy tale nomenclature requirements.  All joking aside, IPEC is tasked with the fairly daunting task of preventing piracy and coordinating anti-piracy efforts across multiple government agencies both at home and abroad.  But with all the power imputed by his lofty title, how can we (as law-abiding students) be assured that we won’t all be prosecuted, for example, every time we give our girlfriend a mixtape of her favorite songs?


Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm Comments Off on Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates