Copyright Criminals

This page written circa 2 June, 2015.

Dennis Baron has written a marvellous commentary entitled "What if printed books went by ebook rules?", from which I draw the summary

An analog version of Kindle's Digital Rights Management agreement (DRM) wouldn't let you lend your Gutenberg Bible to a friend, give it away, sell it at a garage sale, donate it to an adult literacy program, or use it to press flowers. Nor could you make it publicly available, for example, by reading it aloud during a religious service. [...] the vendors of ebooks aren't selling books as physical objects, like Gutenberg and his successors did. Instead, they're selling us the right to read. That's more like selling us the right to vote, or think, or breathe. Gutenberg's readers wouldn't have put up with that. Today's readers shouldn't have to put up with it either.

When steam engines were first deployed they were leased. IBM mainframes in the 1960s were leased. Although the costs of those leases seem high (the cheapest IBM cost $2,000/month in 1964 dollars and for machines with orders-of-magnitude more power it could be much more), the customer came out financially much better off, and the manufacturer could ensure that the machines were properly handled---remember that these things represented extreme high technology---meaning that their reputation would not be jeopardised by failures attributable to user ignorance. Neither of these arguments applies to books and films in electronic format.

I have commented before on the perversion of copyright law from an artistic incentive to a corporate income booster. There are cases where the situation is open to debate, for example in some cases of music by sampling, as explained in the film whose title gives this essay its title, though my title reverses the meaning. Even there, copyright enforcement stifles creative activity and the copying does not seem to be harming artists. There are cases where copying material is conspicuously unethical, for example torrenting recent-release films. When it won the Academy award, Birdman had tens of thousands of leechers on PirateBay and the like, even now it is thousands. I still haven't seen it, since it has gone from the cinemas here and has yet to be released on DVD, let alone reach the local video rental places, and yet it does not seem quite kosher, even in this circumstance, to torrent it.

Nevertheless, I feel it should be quite acceptable to copy things I cannot buy. The extreme position of publishers and studios on what they think you should be allowed to do certainly does not leave one disposed to support them. Blogs are full of appeals for some reasonable solution. What most people fail to appreciate is that the era of huge profits from captured IP (such as music recordings that created rock superstars in the 1970s) is the abberation. For a while there copyright, "enforced" by the technology of recording on vinyl discs, was excessively powerful. Technology has addressed that problem via cassette tapes, and now personal computers. That application of copyright was the unfair scenario. In his TED talk, Sting said that he dreamed as a working-class kid of becoming fabulously wealthy, world-famous, and have a wonderful life doing most ever what he wanted. "So far so good" he concludes.

I am slogging my way through Thomas Piketty's magnificent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If he does not get a Nobel prize for this I will be disappointed. To summarise the relevance, capital gives income without labour, and when you have accumulated some multiple of the average salary you join this hallowed club where you can live without working. In essence, this situation is guaranteed to produce an unstable society. In the times of Austen and Balzac one needed 10 to 60 times the average income to live comfortably idle, but times and technology have compressed this to perhaps 7. A trend to entry into this idyll starts when return on investment exceeds national growth. Disproportionate earners, such as a monopoly or IP protected by excessive copyright, are destabilising. Of course, they are rather pleasant for the fortunate. Who would turn down Microsoft's virtual monopoly or copyright of Harry Potter?

It is very hard to attack what Piketty identifies as long-term bad. There's a tendency to think that inventors deserve their near-monopoly, at least for entry into the class of idle rich, if not excessively over-rich. A cure for the instability would simply be to see that capital is not carried past death, but it looks mighty risky to legislate that you cannot do with your money in your will whatever you want... would it not kill the incentive? Yet these views may not be correct. Much of a startup's success is not the idea, see Bill Gross's nifty TED talk. I can imagine ways of deploying capital that would satisfy removing it from private hands without removing the incentive to accumulate it, even if that was to be the key factor incentivising the creative path.

So Mr Baron, there are people who are NOT putting up with the DRM. A major weakness of the US government, to my mind, is the degree to which it is influenced by what business interests want. Copyright no longer serves its stated aim, and the US government supports the perversion. Technology is rising to oppose the powers of evil. Will governments heed Piketty?

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