Copy a Song, Go to Jail

Many, if not most of us have done it; tape a television show, make a cassette (there is a reason I?m using such an old fashion example) of some songs. Lately, with the advent of digital media this has become a major issue for the movie studios and the recording industry. While our old tapes suffered the degradation of quality inherent with analog transfer, the new digital copy methods and the access to fast internet connections have made this issue very real. It is now possible to make copy after copy of a film or song, each a perfect replica of the original. The moral and legal issues that entwine this topic are vast, opinions run hot on both sides of the debate but as usual it is the person sitting at home that is most affected.

This is not a problem that began with the technical age we now live in. There were most likely people concerned that hand copying a book was serious trouble. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) head by Jack Velenti has been involved with this issue for decades. They where joined by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) which dealt with the issue as it affected the music recording industry. When the VCR begun to catch on in the American household they felt that the ability to copy a film on video tape would have a sever impact on movie attendance. When a film was broadcast on the television it was easy to set the VCR to record it. Of course you usually got the commercials as well and there was the problem of the quality being fare less than perfect. This was also experienced with the Phillips Cassette recorder, those little plastic shells containing magnetic tape that made recording easy and inexpensive. The record industry was very worried that sales of records would decrease drastically as people could tape their friend?s album or even record the songs they wanted off the radio. What actually happened in each of these examples is the concerned industries turned to the new media as a fresh source of revenue. Film studios began to release their movies on VHS tapes; store began to flourish that rented these tapes. Music studios sold not only the vinyl records but released the music directly on cassette tapes. The key point here was the established studios where able to release a product in the new formats that where much better in quality than the home made versions. They were able to compete on the level where a householder would want to invest their money in owning a legitimate copy. There was a value added to buying the legitimate copy, better quality. While this didn?t do away with illegal copying it did decrease it somewhat and provide additional revenue to offset the potential loss of income.  

Recently, the game has changed, drastically and forever. Almost every new computer comes with a CD and DVD writable drive. This provides millions of people the ability to make exact digital duplicates of copyrighted material. Unlike the old school analog tapes, these copies are usually excellent in quality and there is no degradation when multiple copies are created. When you add to this the growing availability and popularity of high speed internet connections you have not only the means to create bootlegged copies but a source of material to copy. This double treat has resulted in the MPAA and RIAA applying a lot of pressure and spending a lot of money on the law makers of the country. One of the major hindrances on the legal front is the internet is truly international in scope. Laws made in one country are almost impossible to enforce on a global scale. The DVD manufacturers tried a global scheme, Region Encoding, where the world is divided into several regions and DVD players are typically capable of playing only there own regions. This just created a market for region free players, those that can play any region DVD, and the numerous hacks to circumvent region coding. It seems safe to say that what technology can prevent technology can also get around. As far as the studios see things the advances in technology has made it possible for one person to become a serious rival distributor of movies and music.

The point of view of the user, people like you and me sitting in front of a computer, the debate boils down to the choice between ?can I? and ?should I?. Now more than ever the moral quagmire is playing a role in the copying of media, since the technology required is so readily available moral and legal issues have to be considered. First let us consider the legal issues. The films and music you download and copy is copyrighted material. There is something called intellectual properties. This applies to the non-tangible, the content of a movie or song. The studios and artists take these laws extremely seriously. They created something with value and want compensation. Since people are interested in paying money to listen to or watching this content it has intrinsic value, legally the same as if you could hold it in your hands. Just because the content is represented by a stream of ones and zeros this does not negate the fact enjoys protection under the law. Studios are currently responding to the great increase in copying or pirating but pressing charges for intellectual thief more than ever. Recently several film and music distributors have pressed internet service providers to provide lists of uses that connect to know pirate distribution sites and have downloaded ?excessive? amounts of material. Now, issues of expectation of privacy are tossed into the mix. People may think that their activities on the internet are anonymous but we all leave trails behind that the governments are now tracking.

Many feel that downloading media is at worse a victimless crime. By downloading without compensation you are taking money from somebody, whether it is the studio or artist. They provide a product and downloader?s are not paying for the enjoyment of this property. If the person downloading the media feels it is worth the time and effort to obtain than they most also realize that it has value to the legal owners. While making copies is an old problem there are three categories of downloader?s. First the ones that uses it only for personal enjoyment. The studios and law makers have recognized this as an almost impossible to track and prosecute. Here the loss of income is this person only deprives the studios of a single sale. Then there are the ones that download with the intention of distribution for profit. Here the legal and moral issues are a bit clearer. They are making a profit off of the work and property of another. Lastly there is a new category, the individual that shares the copies with a host of others. More than the loss of a single sale the owners are losing a significant amount of legal profits. Sites like Napster and Kazaa have perhaps millions of users all making duplicates of legally copyrighted material without payment.

I?ve heard many people justify downloading by saying the film was bad, I wouldn?t pay for the theater or the disc why should I pay for a download? Again, it comes down to intrinsic value. If you feel that it was not worth paying for through legal means why would you download it? The act of obtaining demonstrates it has some value to you. Don?t the legal owners deserve payment for their efforts? The result of these actions is the loss of income is passed on to those that want to purchase the work through legitimate means. There is an old saying that there ?Ain?t no such thing as a free lunch?, even if you are not paying for the download, someone will wind up with the tab. In this way it is similar to shoplifting, the consumer get to pay somehow. Then there are some that point out that the material is broadcasted for free on television or the radio. Again this is a misconception. Those venues pay for the rights to broadcast this material. For cable stations the cost is passed on in your cable bill, for commercial stations the advertisers pay for their commercials and pass on the cost to the consumers in their prices. 

The American lawmakers have been trying to keep up with the advances of technology. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 deals with the intellectual property rights and how they pertain to digital media. Basically this act makes it illegal to circumvent any anti-copy protection such as Macro Vision, Outlaws the manufacture, sale, or distribution of code-cracking devices used to illegally copy software, Provides exemptions from anti-circumvention provisions for nonprofit libraries, archives, and educational institutions under certain circumstances and Requires that the Register of Copyrights, after consultation with relevant parties, submit to Congress recommendations regarding how to promote distance education through digital technologies while “maintaining an appropriate balance between the rights of copyright owners and the needs of users.”  Many people feel that this act will restrict the ability of a user to create a backup for the media they legally purchased.

If the past is any indication the pendulum will swing to and fro a few times before a reasonable compromise can be achieved. There is also the consideration of just who will be prosecuted under these new laws. It is doubtful that the casual end user that has a few MP3 songs and a collection of home made DVDs of favorite shows will face the courts, it most likely that the prosecutors will go after those conspicuously making profit off the copyrighted material of others. This is already seen with the recent crack down on the heavy users of file sharing systems. It?s like the FBI warnings at the beginning of most tapes and DVDs; unless you are really doing this professionally it is doubtful that the FBI will raid your living room.

Bottom line is the duplication of copyrighted music and a movie is illegal. The morality is subject to personal interpretation but is general in the same category as actual theft. There are no easy answers here. As soon as the studios and legal distributors find a way to protect their wares someone will circumvent it. There has been a debate between personal freedom and privacy versus the rights of the corporation to protect fair market profits. This is a matter that will go on until the next great advancement in technology and this wheel of controversy begins to roll again. The studios will continue, cassette tapes and VCRs did not destroy them. DVDs, TiVo and downloading will not crush the market but now the ease and quality do threaten profits more than ever. The battle continues with all sides as adamant as ever and no end in sight.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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