Beg, Borrow, Steal

On my social media outlets the other day, I happened to catch a link to a post on Lifehacker entitled, “Why I Stopped Pirating and Started Paying for Media”. As you can guess from the title, the author talks about their personal journey to legitimacy. In reading about their own experience, I got to thinking about my own dance with copyright, media, and the shady side of the internet.

Back in college in the late 1990’s, the big thing in the dorm computer network was the peer to peer (P2P) service Napster. It was in its heyday and I, like many of my peers, took advantage of it. I wasn’t one of those people who downloaded everything and anything they could find just for the hell of it, but I did download tracks I heard on the radio that I liked. I had a fondness for remixes and mashups which weren’t generally weren’t available on a CD so it was perfect for finding those kinds of music tracks as well. I still bought music so that I could have the liner notes and the physical CD itself, but I was able to try out different artists as well. (Those mp3s are long gone now, but I still have the CDs from that time.)

After Napster went kaput, I used KaZaa for a short period of time. The big difference between the two programs was that KaZaa offered P2P video files as well. I was still looking for mashups and remixes but I could also find videos for whatever my interest was at the time. Graphic war footage, pornography, funny video clips, you name it. The bigger issue with KaZaa was the prevalence of malicious viruses as well as purposefully mislabeled files intended to troll the viewer/listener. Hearing the virus alert go off got old very fast just as opening up a music or video file and finding something else. The luster wore off quickly and I stopped using KaZaa after a few months.

I didn’t really think much about copyright or ownership at that point in my life. I knew it was wrong, but not wrong enough to stop what I was doing. At the time, there were no digital music alternatives. iTunes had not arrived on the scene and Amazon was still selling books. The market that exists today was something that people spoke of breathlessly at conferences and industry trade shows. I never tried to justify it to myself that I was doing no harm, but that the harm I was doing was minimized since I only downloaded and never shared my files with others. (Yeah, I was that guy.)  I know that doesn’t absolve me from guilt or blame, but it was enough of a mitigation to ease my conscious at the time.

After KaZaa, I completely stopped using P2P networks. I haven’t touched anything like since the early 00’s, not even a bit torrent. In that post P2P time period, I also stopped buying music or movies for the most part except for the occasional (and exceptional) artist or movie here and there. I would say that the two events are related but I will concede that I wasn’t going to movies or listening to the radio much either. After I bought my first iPod, I did get back into purchasing music but on a limited basis. The majority of my music still dates back to the pre-iTunes era as well as my movie collection. Overall, the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.

Fast forward to the present day.

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot more anti-piracy public service announcements (PSAs). It gets my attention at first because I loathe the term “piracy” for its inherent inaccuracy, but I’ll concede that “unauthorized file sharing” isn’t as sexy a term. Although, if you called it by the latter, it would certainly be less glamorous than the people who relish in the notion of being a pirate. Not many are going to take up the title of “sharer” (sharerer?) as it doesn’t have the same mystique as pirate.

I recently saw one of these PSAs before DVD episodes of the TV series Justified that I had borrowed from my library. This giant emblem would pop up on the screen with a dire warning about how I could go to jail, be fined, lose all my friends, and die alone if I copied this disc. Ordinarily, I’ve learned to tune out the FBI warning and other emblem related television warnings. But this warning then proceeded to give me a rundown of how it was protected internationally followed by the same warning in all of the official languages of the United Nations. Worse, it’s completely unskippable so that I have find a way to amuse myself through these two unrefundable minutes of my life. Since it magically knew to do this each time I started up my DVD player, these life stealing increments added up to the point where I became very sympathetic to people who download media illegally to avoid this time theft.

I also heard announcements on commercial radio urging people to call a number or go to a website to report media piracy in their area. The announcement spends more time telling people how to contact them than compelling reasons why they should do it other than (to paraphrase) it’s bad. It didn’t mention anything about a reward so I guess they are hoping for listeners to act out of the goodness of their hearts or (more likely) revenge on people who have wronged them or spiteful frame-ups intended to give someone a hard time. Nothing quite like a little McCarthy-like “rat on your friends, family, and neighbors” strategy to endear themselves to the public, but since I guess you can’t do worse in the public relations department after suing thousands of consumers over the course of years for very little return. Even then, this is hunting goldfish rather than the internet pirate website whales.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to feel this way, but my overall impression of copyright, intellectual property, and swirling vortex of issues around those two issues can be summed up in one word: unsatisfactory. Personally, there isn’t much quality television out there and even less quality movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. I’m willing to wait to television series or movies to come out on DVD and either borrow them from a friend or from the library. Even for the series that I’m following closely, there is nothing pressing that I need to watch right this moment. The price point is not sufficiently low enough to tempt me to purchase it for that instant gratification. It’s not to say that I haven’t been tempted, but the temptation is very fleeting.

Professionally, it feels like dancing through a landmine field. I am trying to steer people to the legitimate track of properly authorized and compensated copies of digital media, but society and business seems to conspire against this ideal. The social acceptance of media copying have lead me to the hardly surprising conclusion that people are copying the music and movies that they check out from the library at home. Over the course of my library years, I’ve even had the unfortunate experience of intervening when people were brazenly ripping CDs onto their laptops at the library. Some honestly didn’t know that it was a copyright infraction while others picked up on the fact that they could copy those CDs but in the privacy of their own homes. When it comes to eBooks, it’s tricky to guide people away from the ease of P2P downloading when the so called “friction” of eBook lending turns the question of borrowing into a overly long complex and extremely contextual answer. In trying to respect the owners of copyright, I end up showcasing all the madness that they have brought down on themselves in order to enforce it. It does nothing to encourage compliance nor engender respect for the concept or the laws supporting it.

Some may argue that librarians are not the stewards of copyright or even “the copyright police”. If you are someone who believes that, do me a favor and keep that stupid opinion to yourself. Librarians will not get a seat at a future copyright reform table if they abandon all forms of current enforcement. While I’m not advocating roaming the streets or even the library itself to patrol for infractions, the simple act of not intervening when infringement is found surrenders our moral high ground as custodians of other people’s work. How are we going to maintain their trust if we as information professionals make it clear that we intend to look the other way? It does not bode well for a future in which intellectual property rights are becoming increasingly important to individuals as well as businesses.

There is another end to my dissatisfaction with copyright; I can’t claim that I’m still perfect in this matter. I will look for legitimate ways to get digital media, but sometimes those outlets don’t exist. Some of the music tracks I find on YouTube don’t have a means to buy them on iTunes, Amazon, or the artist’s website. I have used one of the many Youtube to MP3 conversion sites out there to obtain a music track that I could not otherwise obtain. Perhaps some might find this to be hypocrisy on my part and I’m willing to concede that. I would say that while this is an action of last resort as a mitigating factor doesn’t make it completely right, but the lack of any legitimate sources left me with either using a convertor or not listening to the music at all. It’s not an ideal tiebreaker, but I rationalize that the artist would rather that I enjoy their music than let it go unnoticed or unappreciated.

With these things in mind, I await the next round of copyright and intellectual property reform. While I look forward to it, I also fear it. History has shown how the business interests have driven the protections beyond the original intent of the Constitution as well as years beyond the lives of content creators. The balance has tipped to the point of outright interference with creativity and innovation. I hope that it can swing back towards the interests of the people while giving ample provision for creators. Copyright is heading towards that moment, but I dare not guess when that moment will happen. I can only hope that it is soon.

Copyright Enforcement: The New Prohibition?

This is just a quick post urging you to take a gander at a post on TechDirt entitled, “So Many Similarities Between Copyright Law And Prohibition”. It links to a paper written by law professor Donald Harris who compares the efforts of Prohibition against the effort of the RIAA against filesharing. It’s a very good read, so make the time.

For myself, it’s the first parallel situation that makes sense to me in looking at filesharing, copyright, and failed enforcement. Like Harris says in the paper, it’s not a perfect analog but it does hold some truths to it: the content industry is attempting to enforce a set of laws that the majority of society does not feel are just or moral. There has to be a better system that will encourage a greater measure of compliance with creator rights but also balance the need for access.

I need to think on this awhile and let it roll over a few times in my brain before I can answer, but what do you think?

First Sale Doctrine as an Endangered Species

While the news that the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari for the case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. goes back to April, it was only last week that Publishers Weekly reported that the Library Copyright Alliance had filed an amicus brief for the case. If you hadn’t heard of this case before, now is the time to learn about it and follow it closely. To say that the stakes in this case are high is an extreme understatement as it could impact hundreds of millions of items in library collections around the United States.

The short version of the case is that Mr. Kirtsaeng purchased and imported textbooks from his native Thailand that were content identical but made with inferior colors and printing stock (in other words, cheaper versions of the same textbook printed in the United States). He then sold these textbooks on sites like eBay and pocketed the profits. John Wiley & Sons got wind of this and filed a suit to stop him doing so under various copyright based legal assertions. Mr. Kirtsaeng argued that his sales were covered under the First Sale Doctrine; since he purchased the book, he had the right to re-sell it. The district court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and held that the language of the First Sale Doctrine did not apply to foreign created works; as such, Mr. Kirtsaeng did not have the right to resell the book. In reaching the Supreme Court, the question before the Justices is this:

The question presented is how these provisions apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States. Can such a foreign-made product never be resold within the United States without the copyright owner’s permission, as the Second Circuit held in this case? Can such a foreign-made product sometimes be resold within the United States without permission, but only after the owner approves an earlier sale in this country, as the Ninth Circuit held in Costco? Or can such a product always be resold without permission within the United States, so long as the copyright owner authorized the first sale abroad, as the Third Circuit has indicated?

Scary stuff indeed.

As libraries rely on the First Sale Doctrine to lend materials, this could mean that all foreign produced works (including those legally created by United States copyright holders and then imported) would not legally lendable. This would surpass the clusterfuck that was the wording and implementation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that made libraries quarantine their children’s collections because of lead content concerns. This is much bigger and far more reaching as it hits every kind of library in the United States. Every collection would need to be scrutinized to determine if the materials were of foreign manufacturing origin; the results could be catastrophic if not completely fatal to the lending ability of libraries.

There is light at the end of the tunnel here, but whether it is the outside sky or a train coming through has yet to be seen. The oral arguments will outline which Justices have which concerns and which way they might be leaning, but that is several months away. It will be interesting to hear how the arguments are framed and presented.

In imagining the worst, I’m wondering whether lending would continue as an act of civil disobedience (as suing libraries isn’t the best PR move ever), insist only on books printed in the United States (leaving distributors in the lurch in dealing with publishers), and/or taking the money we would have spent on the collection and investing it in other things like collaborative spaces, comfy accommodations, or updating and upgrading our technology portfolios. In any event, it’s certainly something to watch and follow closely.

If your library couldn’t lend out foreign works, how would that effect you?

“Are copyright owners their own worst enemy?”

From ABC Australia:

Nowadays, copyright barely resembles what it was originally designed for i.e. to protect both parties: inventors and content creators on the one side and the public on the other. Corporate America and government compliance have written out public interests in many instances. The case of Mickey Mouse is illustrative.

Nonetheless, there’s an air of inevitability about it all. Historically, how often have incumbent, monopolistic industries shrugged their shoulders and written off their entire business model to embark on a journey along a crowded new highway, with rules set by customers, that leads who-knows-where?

On a personal note, I suspect that once the world’s internet infrastructure comes up to speed, we’ll all be using on-demand subscription models and the notion of buying content to keep will feel archaic. Even so, more needs to be done to protect the public from ham-fisted copyright industries demanding payment for everything.

It’s an interesting article and well worth the read. I think that sometimes when companies try to set up revenue streams they end up trying to dam up the whole river. From our own experiences with such construction, it’s safe to say that it can have a detrimental effect on the people downriver as well as the area surrounding the dam. If content shares the same evasive quality as water, it will find a way around any obstacle given enough time.

(h/t: Library Link of the Day)

Copyright as a Hammer, not a Shield

From OpenCongress:

Big media companies and the Obama Administration have been asking Congress to change the copyright laws so that people who stream copyrighted content on the internet, whether intentionally or not, can be put in jail or charged massive fines.

[…]

The bill in question is S.978, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar [D, MN], to “amend the criminal penalty provision for criminal infringement of a copyright, and for other purposes.” Specifically, it would raise illegal streaming from a misdemeanor to a felony by changing its legal status as a “public performance” to the same level as a “reproduction” or “distribution.” That would seem to mean that someone who unknowingly embeds a YouTube video on their site that contains material that is determined to be protected by a copyright could potentially face the same penalty as someone who runs a large-scale DVD bootlegging operation.

And thus begins the remix/rehash culture versus the corporate copyright fiefdoms. Or, as I see it, an incredibly good case for encouraging the use of Creative Commons for all sorts of mediums. For the artists and authors who want their fans to use and play with their creations, this law does everything opposite to it.

While I can understand and respect the right of creator to profit from their labors, it cannot be at the expense of fair use and its accepted derivatives.

(h/t: Alaskan Librarian)

Public Libraries & Copyright Enforcement

There has been an ongoing discussion on the PUBLIB listserv for the last week or so. It started off with a short question:

A patron checks out 20 music CDs. Proceeds to rip them to his laptop while in the library. Then returns them.
What should I have done? Is that copyright violation? Should I have told him? Stopped him?

What the thread has evolved into is a strange journey through the psyche of the public librarians around the country. What I thought was pretty simply slam dunk of an answer (“It’s a copyright violation happening right in front of you. You should have stopped it and informed the patron what they were doing was illegal”) has stirred what I can only imagine (and hope) are fringe perspectives. It ranges from the absurd idea that patron privacy is ABSOLUTE even in the face of overt illegal activities to screeds against corporations and their profit making with some excuse making arguments between regarding the value of staff confrontation with patrons (a non-starter) and the milquetoast “We don’t actually KNOW what they are going to do with the CDs after they rip them” shrug-of-the-shoulders (extraordinarily weak looking the other way mentality).

While I’m relieved that there were other librarians on the list who rebutted these suppositions, there was a very dismayed “WTF” moment to the whole thread. The casual manner in which peers were willing to set aside the law in the face of an overt copyright violation is rather disheartening as society moves towards another intellectual property turning point. I’m not suggesting that librarians kick in doors or engage in surveillance of patrons at their homes, but the profession can do its part in educating the public as to the current copyright law and what it means for them.

Lest we forget that these patrons are also voters, represented by their elected officials on both the state and national level. If they really have a problem with the current copyright laws, then they are well positioned to take actions on changing those laws. It would be rightfully cynical to think that one person doesn’t have a shot at changing the overall status quo, especially not in the face the deep pockets of the entertainment industry. But librarians can foster those people at the personal level with a greater eye towards a longer term cultural attitude change. It will not be an instant gratification moment that we have become inclined towards, but something on a longer term over generations.

The people who cast aside the profit motive forget that they benefit from it in indirect ways. It can be through sales tax collected locally on purchased works; the companies that employ people in their area to develop, make, manufacture, and sell those items; and let’s not forget those corporate sponsorships for library programs and conferences that the profession likes to have every year. It is the profit motive that facilitates the sale of content to libraries in the first place. If those companies feel that libraries are hurting their bottom line by not defending their intellectual content (and they exist), then they are going to be less motivated to sell content to us or attach an increasing amount of strings (such as DRM) to the product. 

The fact of the matter is that being lax on copyright does not get a chair at the table the next time it becomes a priority to change. It weakens our standing within that conversation to be turning a blind eye or offering up weak rationales for not educating the public or taking action when warranted. It is true that we cannot control what patrons do beyond our front door, but librarians can act on what they see and hear on the inside. The smug arrogance of a ‘sticking it to the man’ now costs the institution in the form of reputation and credibility in the future.

How would you answer this question? What are your thoughts on it?

Third World Piracy, First World IP Headaches

piracy-handy-guide

The Social Science Research Council recently released a report entitled “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies”. This three year study focused on music, movie, and software privacy in countries like Russia, South Africa, and Brazil. You can get the report here, depending on which part of the Consumer’s Dilemma you qualify for in terms of price. The major findings of the report are as follows (I’ve summed up their bullet points):

  • Prices are too high. [Prices are 5-10 times higher relative to income.]
  • Competition is good. [No competition means no lower prices.]
  • Antipiracy education has failed. [Self-explanatory.]
  • Changing the law is easy. Changing the practice is hard. [Same.] 
  • Criminals can’t compete with free. [Same issue as legit companies.]
  • Enforcement hasn’t worked.

I wouldn’t immediately move to lump eBooks into this pile, but as it is a digital file, it can’t be far off from these findings. Especially the point about “criminals can’t compete with free”, which feels like a remote overture towards libraries; why would people buy the book if they can just borrow it for free?

Felix Salmon at Reuters writes:

For starters, Mike Masnick is absolutely right that the report debunks the entire foundation of US foreign IP policy. That policy has essentially been written by the owners of US intellectual property, who jealously protect it and think that the best thing they can possibly do is be as aggressive as possible towards any sign of international IP piracy. As the report shows, this makes a tiny amount of profit-maximizing sense for the companies concerned. But it actually encourages, rather than reduces, piracy in the aggregate. (Emphasis in original)

And (as quoted by Andrew Sullivan in part, attributed at the bottom of this post):

The big forces driving media piracy in developing countries are real and powerful and will not be changed, no matter how many western politicians get on their moral high horses and insist that countries like India and China build a “culture of intellectual property.” But the irony is that if governments and corporations really wanted to build such a culture, then they would encourage companies to set their prices low enough that the populations of those countries could actually afford to buy music, movies, and software at the full legal retail price. It turns out that domestic companies are quite good at distributing media at low prices, and can build profitable businesses by doing that. But foreign companies have different incentives in the short term, and don’t do that.

It’s worth reading his whole take on the report. The quotes he pulls out are stunning. For as much puffery that is placed on the ills of piracy and how much it costs those three industries, the documentation to this claim is either suspect or non-existent. Considering the robustness of these industries, it’s hard to see where the financial suffering begins.

Reihan Salam at the National Review Online has his take:

High prices for media goods create what the report’s authors call “the consumer’s dilemma”: you can pay the high legal price, you can find a pirated copy, or you can skip consuming the good in question. Technology has been diffusing faster than incomes have been converging. That is, there are now millions of people living around the world who have the devices and the broadband they need to consume media goods produced in the rich world, but without the incomes they’d need to pay the prices to which people in the rich world have grown accustomed.

In viewing these reports and reactions through the librarian kaleidoscope, the steps taken to prevent piracy in the third world make for a difficult product and limiting conditions in the first world. As the people who can afford eBooks under their current pricing structures, we (both libraries and consumers in the first world) are seen as the best way to recover expenses and generate revenues. We pay the DRM and monetary price for the actions of others well beyond the long reach of intellectual property law.

Now I’m off to wonder where libraries fall into this picture. As an entity that lends content at no additional cost to the community member, I can see why libraries are held as suspect in the publisher eBook lending idea. You can’t compete with free; but you also can’t compete if the obstacles to content make the pirate alternative a viable (albeit illegal) option. It’s something to consider as we move forward with eBook collections.

(h/t: Daily Dish, twice)