Sunday, November 06, 2005

Copyright or wrong?

Copying and copyright is an issue that is dogging more and more people because almost everybody in this internet age has become a website designer (yes, even 11 and 12 year olds can design websites nowadays) or a content creator (such as bloggers).

I once had a student who did a website for a commercial firm. This firm subsequently received a lawyer's letter demanding payment of penalty (I think the figure of S$5000 was mentioned) for using one of their maps in one of the WebPages. I don't remember if there was any takedown order. Apparently the copyright holder wanted money more than just their rights, or are these one and the same? I heard of similar cases by WOM and in the press and marveled that this company was doing a side business going around town suing everybody in sight who may have violated their copyrights. I don't quite agree with these predatory tactics. In many cases, as in my student's (he sounded anxious when he first called me to discuss the issue), the act was done without intent to deprive the copyright holder of its revenue, but the copyright holder thought otherwi$e.

When is it right to copy a work? How much of it can be copied. To whom does that work belong, and for how long? These, and many more issues are explored and discussed in John Gantz and Jack Rochester's (G&R) book, "Pirates of the Digital Millennium". This is a highly readable book, compared to others, which tend to be couched too much in legalese that an average reader would get lost in or fall asleep on.

It covers a short history on piracy and the copyright law. It showed me (I am not legally trained) that copyright or the right to copy has not always been, and need not always be the same in different times and different places. Copying is a very natural human activity, anyway. Before the advent of the printing presses, monks were copying valuable tomes of works from other monastaries for their monasteries. Copyright then was never an issue. Meiji Japan had copied the French and Germans in their education systems, as well as US technologies before and after World War II, profiting greatly from them, although this same activity led to the untold suffering of many in the war.

G&R also explored the various parties involved in any intellectual property dispute and looks in detail at one such party - Microsoft. The point made was that much work goes into producing a product, whether it is software or music or movies, and much of these involve a creative and innovative process – typically long and usually expensive. Piracy denies these producers of their rewards (or at least recoup their investments). For smaller players, piracy can drive them out of business. The implication is that piracy is anathema to creativity and innovation. A country will find itself much poorer if it did not have sufficient laws to protect its productive endeavors, as the case of Ghana illustrated. Some nations, especially the US, have swung decisively in recent years, to the side of the producers, culminating in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. In the authors' opinion, this act is flawed as it favoured the producers too much. For example, an innocent child was accused of sharing a Harry Potter video over the internet when in fact, the child had only done a one-page book report on that video. There remains the possibility of abuse by the producers that can scare the living daylights out of everybody through this Act.

The authors conclude their discussion with the economic argument for piracy (with Lester Thurow weighing in here) and the issue of ethics (what you should or should not do argument shorn of pragmatic considerations). They suggest certain actions that both the consumer and producer can take in the future to reduce (not possible to eliminate) instances of piracy.

It’s a good book. Go read.