Another Problem with Copyright

I had an interesting copyright experience this morning.

I follow Violet Blue’s blogs — and when she went to the Forbes Web Disruptor’s conference, she recorded a panel discussion as a video feed. She mentioned in her comments that she wanted to strip it back to only audio, but the software she was using couldn’t handle a file that large. Since I usually listen to lectures and panel discussions while exercising, I stripped it, transcoded it to mp3 and loaded it on my mp3 player.

It was a good panel, and several people made interesting points, but someone else can write about that. What made me pause is that I had the file available, and could have easily made it available to whoever wanted it. Instead – I ended up putting it away in a private directory and sending her a link. Even that was technically unlawful. As things stand, I am being exposed to potential legal liability for trying to help out someone I admire who’s stuck out back of the beyond with marginal software. Somehow, I don’t think that this was what any of the lawmakers involved in copyright intended.

If damaging cooperation among people who respect each other’s work is not the intent of copyright (and I’m fairly certain that it’s not), than how can we fix the problem? That’s a much more interesting question, and answering it means taking a long hard look at how we reward people for creating works of value or beauty. In this context, that means thinking about the social nature of cooperation.

In a way, much of this gets back to some of the things Richard Stallman wrote about software. The key to his writings is a belief that people’s willingness to cooperate and share is one of the human attributes that holds society together. No matter what you have to say about his other beliefs, that basic premise is difficult to disagree with. This leads to some interesting situations — for example, the fact that Bittorrent works for infringing content, socially, says something about people. One of the things that it says is that people will continue to work together, to share things they value with each other, even in the face of personal risk. In effect, my personal benefit ends the moment I have a complete copy of whatever I am downloading – whether that’s a song, a movie, or a program. Any time I continue to stay connected to the network, I increase my personal risk without any direct personal benefit. The system continues to work because of a personal belief that I should “give back” to the community.

Law and society are interconnected systems. Changing one will, over the long term, always have an impact on the other. In situations where changes in society overturn unjust laws, or where good leadership leads to laws that promote a society that is more just – these effects can be extremely good. In other situations, such as where repressive laws have been used in an attempt to stop positive social changes or social resistance has stopped necessary legal reform, things have been less positive. In either case, it’s important to remember this effect when you look at changes in the law, whether those changes are historic or anticipated.

In the case of file sharing networks, the law and society are at odds. The question we have to ask at this point is to what extent we are willing to suppress socially beneficial behavior (sharing) to get a socially desirable benefit (compensation for media companies and, indirectly, artists). This is not a case where any of the absolutes come into play — it’s not about life and death, it’s about money. Money is important, and so are social institutions – but let’s be realistic about what we’re dealing with. Legislation is always a process of deciding to give up some of one thing to get more of something else. It is our responsibility as citizens to ensure that our government makes a good bargain, and to correct it when it fails. I don’t know what the correct balance is, but I know that the current system has failed and it’s time to reassess it starting at the beginning.

Update: She decided not to sue me 🙂

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