Freedom of Information vs. Protection of Intellectual Property

This week, EMI announced that in May, they are to start selling their entire catalogue of music downloads without DRM copy protection, and with better audio quality. They will be available first through iTunes.

There’s a quiet battle going on between proponents of freedom of information and protectors of intellectual property. I’m going to try to talk about the history and the principles of this conflict, rather than the politics surrounding it.

One one hand, there are those who believe that a computer is a tool, so if you buy a piece of software for it (including media, such as downloaded music), you should be able to do with it whatever you wish. If the software needs modifying to perform a particular task, then you should be able to modify it. If you want to install it on more than one machine, you should be able to do that freely too. However, that’s not to say that you should necessarily be allowed to do whatever you wish- just because it’s legal to buy a sharp knife, doesn’t mean that it’s OK to stab someone with it.

On the other hand, there are those who are concerned that computers make it too easy to steal their intellectual property- for example, for people to copy and share music, films or software over the internet. If you copy something, then you’re not buying it, so therefore the lost sales cost someone money.

Copyright law offers legal protection for the second group- laws prohibiting the illegal copying and distribution of copyrighted materials date back several hundred years. The principle of copyright originated from the effects of the invention of Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press, which made it possible to quickly and cheaply print lots of copies of texts which previously had to be written out by hand. (Interestingly, although the laws today protect the rights of the author, copyright was originally a form of censorship to prevent the distribution of Protestant texts in Catholic England; the Printers Guild was set up in 1556, with the exclusive right to print and copy texts, and the right to confisicate or destory illegal prints or printed works. It wasn’t until 1710 that the laws were changed to recognise the ownership of the author, rather than the Printers Guild.)

However, the idea of legal protection of the freedom of users is a much more recent issue, and is being shaped by the current progression of technologies. Exemptions for “Fair use” exist- in the US, this allows copyrighted materials to be used for review, or for scholarship. Since the 1984 “Betamax Case“, arguing whether it was legal to use video recorders to tape TV shows to watch later on, it has been “Fair Use” to record copyrighted material for personal use (and by extension to sell video recorders- devices which were sold and marketed to be used to record copyrighted material.) However, DRM technolgies now exist that try to prevent copyrighted material from being copied, despite what is considered to be “Fair Use.” So although “Fair Use” would appear to cover recording a DVD to a computer hard drive, technological barriers have been put up to make this difficult.

Some authors (particularly in the case of software) prefer their works to be freely available and distributable. As copyright automatically protects authors from other people copying and distributing their work, this system has been the basis of the idea of permissive licencing, where instead of restricting certain rights to the author, the copyright is modified to extend the rights to use, modify and/or copy the work to anyone who receives it- with conditions, such as any copies or adaptations must also distributed under the same licence, or the original author must also be credited, or the work can only be freely used for non-commercial purposes. There are a number of different licences available, each with different areas of focus; the most popular are the GNU General Public Licence (and the GNU Lesser General Public Licence), the BSD Licence, the Mozilla Public Licence, the MIT Licence and the Apache Licence. There is also the Creative Commons movement, which aims to make artistic works such as music and photography freely available in much the same way.

Now for the editorial part; my own generation grew up videoing films off the TV and making tapes for their friends or for their cars. I remember making tape-to-tape copies of my sisters music and friends’ computer games- I even have vague memories of setting up a Fisher Price “My First Tape Recorder” with it’s built in microphone next to a story tape playing on my parents stereo, so that I could record both sides of the story onto one side of a longer blank tape (and learning a lesson about background noise and degradation of signal in the process.) Even though so much music and film was freely available to me through my friends, I still spent a huge amount of my disposable income on tapes and videos (and later, CDs and DVDs.) If I had a tape I liked, I would go and buy the CD.

One of the main factors behind the explosion of the World Wide Web is freedom. On 30th April 1993, CERN announced that the World Wide Web would be free for anyone to use, with no fees due. Most web servers run a Linux operating system, which is released under the free GPL licence, and use Apache software, which is also released under a free licence. The principles of freedom are deeply ingrained in the culture of the Web.

Without the freedom to use the internet and the freedom of the World Wide Web, it is undoubtable that it would not have it’s place today as a wide reaching global platform. However, if manufacturers continue to rely on technological barriers to protect their intellectual properties, the issue of copyright could easily become a matter of what you can do, instead of what you should- and as long as sound comes through a pair of speakers, or video gets plugged into a screen, there will always be a way to copy media. As long as computer code runs on a computer, there will be a way to hack it.

I believe that the important factor is in people’s minds. If the issue of whether you can take something becomes a simple case of whether or not it’s been nailed down and protected enough, then what happens to media that isn’t properly protected? What happens when the “stealing” isn’t someone copying a DVD for their laptop, but someone copying someone elses design and selling it on? If people aren’t trusted to know what’s right and wrong, then what reason is there for them to care? If they can copy someone else’s work, then there is the danger of the assumption that they are allowed to, so proper education is essential. If all you do is put more locks on something, all you end up with is better locksmiths (not to mention immense frustration when one day you forget your key.)

For an individual, giving a copy of a DVD to a friend might result in a loss of earnings of a few pounds by a multi-million dollar studio. But for a professional, copying a photograph for their website or catalogue, or using GPL’d software in their commercial project- that could result in a loss of earnings of hundreds of pounds or more.

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