Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The viable solution to internet piracy

The sad fact of the matter is piracy as it is currently defined cannot be stopped without enormous breaches of privacy. Absent the restriction of tools to even create programs that can effortlessly defeat protection methods, you can't stop people from copying digital information. Mostly because the mere act of being on the internet means you are required to copy things just to view/listen to them. This is a sample of some of the points of a paper I recently read at Cato called The Future of Copyright. My personal favorite part:

When American troops liberated the city of Luxembourg in 1944, they made a strange capture: a machine capable of recording sound on magnetic tapes. Shortly after the war, this German military invention made its appearance in private homes. Tape recorders integrated listening and reproduction in one device, but as separate functions. That’s no longer the case with digital technology. Today, to use digital information is to copy it.

Computers operate by copying. They couldn’t care less whether the physical distance between original and copy is measured in micrometers or in miles; both work equally well for them. Copyright law, on the other hand, must somehow draw a line between use and distribution. That means putting an imaginary grid over the chaotic myriad of network nodes, delineating clusters of devices that can be attributed to individuals or households.

Every person reading this article is actually copying it illegally. You can't help but do it. As you surf the internet your computer is constantly caching (saving locally) data that you are viewing. Anyone who has ever used the internet for anything is almost certainly a pirate. I'll let you all off with a warning this time. Humor aside, the problem is one that the music industry found itself in a long while ago with the invention and mass adoption of radio. John Philip Sousa was convinced anything but live shows would completely destroy music. The solution, after much complaining, was to just license the distributor. Now of course the distributor and consumer and creator is anyone and everyone on the internet. The compromise is an idea that is not new and is even talked about by both sides of the issue with increasing interest: mass public electronic media licensing. If everyone on the internet is a pirate, license everyone. Everyone who wants to buy in at least. You've solved 99% of your piracy problems by facing the reality of a system, the internet, that requires copying. You also don't even have to host the files themselves, users are more than willing to do so. The idea has merit but the problem is the pie to be divided. We need an organization as trusted as the Nielsen statistics are for downloaded media content to correctly award creators and their labels/studios/whatever. The only alternatives are to entire restrict piracy with the kind of locking down that would destroy the internet and privacy in general (people could still just rip stuff from friends/renters) OR to see an attempt to destroy internet and privacy while the major content holders die a slow and painful (for everyone involved) death at the hands of unrelenting technological innovation. Edit: Hahaha. Bonus quote from a Guardian article linked from the Cato piece:
"For somebody who has spent 30 years in the music industry, you instinctively know this stuff is going on. But when you actually sit looking at your computer and see a number that says 95% of people are copying music at home, you suddenly go, 'Bloody hell'," he said.
Turns out you could nuke the internet from orbit and the current copyright model is doomed. Note: Copying this work is no longer actually illegal in any sense, since I have licensed everything with Creative Commons.

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