Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copyrights, copylefts, copywrongs...

I recently got into a debate about copyrights with a favourite cousin. He, amazingly, had never heard of Bit Torrent (he lives in the US, could it be that the press there doesn't write about such things??) but when I tried to describe its brilliant concept, he assumed right away that this was merely a way to infringe copyrights and refused to listen. And he got worked up about musicians not being to earn a living because of music piracy. After all that, I thought I'd learn a little about music copyright from the internet.

I've often wondered about copyrights on recorded music, and one of the questions to which I've so far found no answer goes as follows. Let's say in 1975 I purchased an LP record of a Beatles album (this in fact did happen, many times over). Now suppose in 2009 I find myself unable to play the album because LP record players are difficult to access (I actually have a working one, but this is a hypothetical discussion). Having bought the album at one time, I believe I still have the right to personal use of the music and this right is distinct from ownership of the piece of plastic. Can I now legally implement my right by copying a CD from a friend (or enemy) onto my laptop? If someone has a clear answer (please no personal opinions or rants, just facts), they should let me know.

If you search for "music copyright" on Google, you first of all reach sites that advise you how to copyright your own compositions. Beyond those, you find several that purport to give you legal information about copyrights and their possible violation, but in practice end up warning you of dire consequences if you even dare to hum a song to your friends, forget copying anything onto your laptop. I assume many, if not all, these sites are sponsored in some way by the music industry. It takes more work to discover sites advocating modification of copyright laws and supporting some form of file-sharing. The website of the Swedish Pirate Party is one such and I'll come back to it below, but the first place I'd recommend the reader to go is The Economist's debate "Copyrights and Wrongs" from which I partially adapted the title of this post (under the doctrine of "fair use").

Here Harvard professor William Fisher argues for the proposition "This house believes that existing copyright laws do more harm than good." In brief his arguments can be summarised as follows: (i) copyrights last far too long to be justified by the authors' legitimate interests, e.g in the US several decades after the author's death, (ii) just about anything one writes/says/composes is automatically protected under copyright, (iii) it's hard to stop piracy in today's world, (iv) it's often impossible to trace the legitimate author and request permission under copyright, so free expression ends up being stifled.

Predictably Prof. Fisher was attacked on point (iii) for appearing to say that since violations are inevitable, the law is bad. His actual point appears to be that milder and fairer laws might elicit much better compliance.

The opposition view in this debate, in support of existing copyright laws, was provided by Prof. Justin Hughes of Cardozo Law College, New York. Going through his opening statement in response to Prof. Fisher's points, I was struck by how weak and disorganised it was. I won't bother to review it here but you can read it for yourself. Although I'm not particularly on his side, even I could have argued his case more convincingly.

Anyhow at the end, the Economist had a vote and Fisher's anti-copyright motion won hands down with 75 percent of the votes. One may question whether some of the votes were self-motivated ("if he's right then my illegal downloading becomes legal!"). But still, given that the Economist is hardly the Pirate Party and their readership is not quite Joe Six-Pack, it's quite striking that so many readers agree the laws need a change.

I personally feel that drastically reducing the duration of copyright as well as requiring authors who want copyright to explicitly register their work on a globally accessible database, are the very minimum changes called for in our times.

And what of the Pirate Party? The manifesto on their website "http://www.piratpartiet.se/international/english" says that they want to "fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens' rights to privacy are respected." I'll continue to quote from their website because they've stated their point of view quite eloquently, as well as economically: "The official aim of the copyright system has always been to find a balance in order to promote culture being created and spread. Today that balance has been completely lost, to a point where the copyright laws severely restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote. The Pirate Party wants to restore the balance in the copyright legislation." They go on to recommend that "A five years copyright term for commercial use is more than enough. Non-commercial use should be free from day one." Though this has not received much attention in India, the Pirate Party received 7% of the Swedish vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections and consequently has two Members of the European Parliament.

Although it's a completely distinct entity, the Pirate Party (as well as its name) originated from the website http://thepiratebay.org/ (go ahead and visit it, I don't think you can be drawn and quartered for doing that!) which claims to be the world's largest torrent server. On their "About" page you find the following rather defensively worded para: "Only torrent files are saved at the server. That means no copyrighted and/or illegal material are stored by us. It is therefore not possible to hold the people behind The Pirate Bay responsible for the material that is being spread using the tracker. Any complaints from copyright and/or lobby organizations will be ridiculed and published at the site." Undeterred, the Swedish police did indeed go after The Pirate Bay and in April 2009 its founders were held guilty in a Swedish court of assisting copyright infringement. They are presently in appeal.

In September 2007, emails allegedly leaked from Media Defender (an anti-piracy organisation) suggested that it was planning hacker attacks on Pirate Bay at the behest of its clients. In a case of the litigation boot being on the other foot, Pirate Bay then filed charges in Sweden against the venerable clients of Media Defender: 20th Century Fox, Sony, Universal, EMI et al. However the Wikipedia entry on Pirate Bay lamely ends with "the charges were not pursued" which leaves me a little baffled.

In an intriguing sidelight, open-source movement guru Richard Stallman argues in this article that the Pirate Party's proposal to abolish or reduce copyright would negatively impact copyleft. (Copyleft is when an author of free software retains copyright solely to use it "to defend freedom for every user" in Stallman's words.) In his very nice article he suggests some intermediate solutions and/or patches to Pirate Party's manifesto.

But back to the debate in The Economist, which as I've pointed out before, is not exactly Pirate Party. In his Closing Statements, Prof. Fisher opines thus: "Digital versions of works of all sorts (music, films, television shows, books, etc) should be subject to a blanket licensing system. People should be free to upload, download, reproduce, watch and listen to an unlimited number of such recordings. The owners of the copyrights in those recordings should be compensated, not through direct payments from consumers, but by being paid shares (in amounts proportional to the relative popularity of their creations) out of a pot of revenue. The money necessary to fill the pot and administer the system could be raised in either of two ways. First, national governments could tax internet service subscriptions and devices commonly used to store or play recordings. Alternatively, internet service providers and groups of copyright owners could negotiate voluntary collective licensing arrangements, which would specify the magnitude of the monthly fees that would be paid by the ISPs on behalf of their customers."

I find this a fascinating thought.