Friday, September 25, 2009

Anti-Piracy Is a Strawman Argument

Piracy. It's a scary sounding thing. We call someone who downloads a copy of a piece of music or movie a "pirate." But file sharing isn't piracy, it's a form of communication. The real problem that the music and movie industries have (when you remove abject greed from consideration) is that the Internet provides the means for everyone to become everyone else's "friend." This breaks the market dynamics on which modern business depends, threatening (in a very real sense) our way of life. But instead of tackling that issue and deciding if there's another way or what we want to do to protect our current model, we brand people pirates and then ask, "why would you support piracy?"

But what if I just don't think that the current system is working for us, and needs to change? What if I don't like the strangle-hold that publishers (in all forms of media) want to have over how their works are used and shared? What if I prefer the "good old days" when I could loan a book to a friend or make a mix tape without fear of reprisal?

Better yet, I think technology can come to our aid, here. The problem is that publishers want guarantees that their copyrights aren't being violated, but users don't want the intrusive tools required to provide such assurances. If, on the other hand, the MPAA, RIAA and interested publishing parties from other media were to join forces with consumer and privacy advocacy groups to ensure that strictly voluntary and loosely controlled mechanisms were in place to allow users to share, copy for personal use, excerpt for review and otherwise exercise fair use over their digital content, I think that they would gain far more traction.

Web video services, for example, have every reason to want to avoid constraining their users' use of digital media. The more they have to police the more liability they accept and the more they damage their reputation. However, if a standard were introduced that allowed them to provide users the option of tagging their communications to indicate when copyrighted material was involved and what it was being used for, and if users were not threatened with immediate sanction for even the most innocent uses, then there might be many services that would want to implement such features and users might adopt these tools even if it meant accepting (again, voluntarily) certain restrictions.

The key concept, here is introducing permissiveness in fair use of digital content in a voluntary way that allows us to highlight what we consider reasonable use cases and what we don't. People who wind up in court defending massive file sharing without working within such a scheme will certainly be much easier to convict, after all. It's also easier to review openly claimed fair use than it is to try to sift through all end-user publication to find the infractions.

Publishers would be just as happy to say that any use has to involve transaction fees, but at this point, I think it's clear that that's not going to happen. Instead, they need to be willing to come to the table with something in hand that everyone benefits from. Yes, concessions will be made, but frankly the Internet is a disruptive technology, and rather than continue to attempt to make their customers suffer equal pain, publishers should accept the pain they've been dealt and make use of the vast see of users who clearly want what they have to offer.

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