Copyright Luddism: How Keeping to a Broken System Hurts Consumers and Helps Pirates

Ian Barry
Staff Columnist

You may have heard the name Aaron Swartz recently. If you haven’t, allow me to enlighten you: in January 2011, Swartz was arrested in connection with a script he wrote to download full-text academic publications, to which he had legitimate access, en-masse from JSTOR’s servers. Almost exactly two years later, facing the threat of up to a 35-year prison term, Swartz killed himself in his home. If that seems wrong to you, you’re not alone. While this is tragic, it is also indicative of a larger problem.

Simply put, I believe that intellectual property law, in the state it is in today, is increasingly incompatible with today’s world and technology. The prevalence of computers and the digitization of media has made it such that strict copyright enforcement is practically impossible, and the desperate measures copyright holders are taking to try and stop unauthorized production is indicative of that. For example, in order to maintain their copyrights and prevent piracy, distributors have taken to packaging their digital products with Digital Rights Management. The DRM software makes it difficult to copy or modify affected media, or load it onto unauthorized devices.

These functions can be used in favor of piracy, but they also have perfectly legitimate uses that get caught in the crossfire. For example, Amazon ebooks can only be loaded onto Kindles. But via a quick Google search, one can remove the DRM from one of their books and thus make it available to view on any of their devices. It’s not anything too difficult, which brings me to my next point: DRM doesn’t work. Computers are, even at the most basic level, machines for copying data. Attempting to completely disable that functionality is an exercise in futility. Games packaged with always-online DRM still pop up on torrent sites a few days after release, functional without an Internet connection, and are more user-friendly than a legitimate copy. The only people DRM inconveniences are people who buy the content. Pirates get copies with no restrictions, while legitimate users have to deal with crippled media.

Given the less than spectacular success of their digital restriction schemes, copyright holders have resorted to other methods to try and retain control of their properties. The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America are two of the major proponents of DRM and anti-piracy initiatives. These two organizations are behind many high-profile court cases in which they have sued the pants off purported infringers. For example, one Jammie Thomas-Rasset was sued for $1.9 million for sharing 24 songs. The ethics of piracy aside, I shouldn’t have to say that these damages are excessive, to say the least, unless Thomas-Rasset was running a media piracy empire from her computer.

In any case, these are lone infringers, not acting in any larger scheme. The people who make coordinated efforts to pirate and make available music and movies? They aren’t as easily traceable over the Internet. In any case, there are so many people sharing files that the chances of being picked out from the pack are slim indeed. These lawsuits serve no purpose other than as a deterrent, and as a deterrent, they’re strikingly ineffective.

These events are indicative of the state of copyright in the U.S. today, namely, excessive efforts put forth by those who benefit from it in an attempt to prop up a dying system. I don’t have room to opine about whether this is the way it should be, or what would be a suitable replacement for it. But I will say that when manufacturers start crippling their products into unusability and companies sue their customers as a modern equivalent of leaving hanged bodies outside the gates, something is wrong with our priorities. It’s about time to reexamine them.

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