Copyright lobbyists love to use words like ‘stealing’ and ‘piracy’ to describe sharing copyrighted materials online. ‘Theft’ is another word commonly applied by these copyright protectionists to what is already a widespread practice. The expression ‘copyright theft’ is a paradox: it is impossible to take away a person’s right to copy information or ideas. ‘Theft’ is used to misinform the public, media and, most importantly, lawmakers, in order to outlaw what many see as perfectly normal behaviour.
We are taught from a very early age to share, and in the Information Age, where sharing information, ideas and culture is incredibly easy, it is only natural for people to continue to do so.
This ability is being hampered however, as groups such as the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT, whose name is ironically a paradox in itself) continue their efforts to protect the failing business model of an industry too complacent and comfortable to adapt. Whenever a new technology comes along that facilitates the dissemination of knowledge and culture on a much wider scale than before, the content industry – the copyright owners and their representatives – complain that it will destroy them.
The video cassette recorder (VCR) was famously condemned in 1982 by Jack Valenti, the then president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who claimed that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Clearly the VCR did not kill the film industry. People did not suddenly stop paying for content. The industry adapted and moved on.
We are facing much the same scenario with the Internet. It is a tool that allows an egalitarian ‘information society.’ Access to content has never been easier or cheaper than now.
Yet this poses a dilemma for the content industry. Producers of content are forced to choose between fighting to maintain their old way of doing business or adapting to the ‘brave new world’ that the Internet is creating. Rather than be innovative and embrace the new technology, they seek stricter enforcement of the old ways of doing things.
What we are witnessing is an abject market failure. Consumers are forced to buy licenses to content that they have no real rights over, that are crippled with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions and are not easily accessible or conveniently delivered. When contrasted with the ‘pirate’ versions, where licenses are redundant, there is no DRM, and content can be accessed 24/7 on multiple devices, is it so hard to conclude why piracy is a popular way of accessing media?
Exorbitant losses are claimed as results of ‘piracy’ or ‘theft’ when litigating, without evidence as to whether those ‘pirates’ intended to purchase the content they accessed. Organisations such as the UK Intellectual Property Office express doubts regarding the methods of calculating ‘losses,’ offering the view that an item is only worth the value a consumer ascribes to it in the digital economy. Copyright holders must find a way of making their content valuable to the consumer – reasonable pricing and unfettered access might be good places to start.
Instead, they support the introduction of legislation that threatens the very civil liberties the Internet is capable of providing – to protect their copyrights they will gladly impinge upon our rights to freedom of speech and expression, not to mention the cultural rights enshrined in international law.
Neil Gane, the managing director of AFACT, is uninformed when he claims the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) would not go beyond preventing ‘large scale theft’. The wide provisions contained within SOPA and PIPA raise concerns regarding who is responsible for policing the Internet, and who has the authority to take down websites that are claimed to infringe copyright. There is also concern over false claims against competitive websites, as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has already been abused by rights holders.
Gane fails to address the concerns that the international public have about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). He ignores the fact that it does not delineate between commercial and non-commercial copyright infringement, which could allow for criminal liabilities to be taken against file-sharers.
He also ignores the grave concerns that the strict patent enforcement provided by ACTA would prevent medicines reaching those in developing countries who desperately need them. But as he is concerned with protecting the ability of content owners to empty our wallets in the developed world, perhaps it is unfair to expect him to think of those less fortunate.
Regarding the claims that ACTA’s negotiations were transparent: anyone who believes that is deluded. Any transparency achieved was the result of leaks, and it is clear that only industry lobby groups received copies of the negotiating texts.
What the content industry fails to acknowledge above all is that it is cannibalising itself.
The Swiss Government have found that while file-sharing is popular in Switzerland, the budget these ‘pirates’ reserve for entertainment remains constant. People are simply supplementing their ‘cultural consumption’ with file-sharing because they do not have the money to purchase everything. Content is being created too fast for incomes to keep up, and copyright is lasting longer. At life + 70 years, the amount of content people are expected to purchase far outweighs their disposable incomes.
If the content industry and their representatives want to remain competitive, they must understand this, and adopt new business models that aren’t reliant upon squeezing every last dollar from us, but from offering reasonable, affordable and accessible services.