Piracy (copyright infringement)

Copyrights and Patents

 

Substantially relax laws and enforcement against "casual copying" and consider a modest amount of casual copying as coming under fair use, but crack down more heavily on counterfeit products and mass copying.

Most debates about copyright get sucked into arguments between two extreme positions.  Usually one position runs like, "I think it's OK to download everything instead of paying for it, the copyright holders get too much money, it's overpriced and I wouldn't have bought it anyway" and the other runs "Piracy is stealing- copyright holders deserve money for their efforts, so don't steal from them you worthless thief.  You wouldn't steal a car, so why steal a film, album or computer game?"

As per usual the truth of the matter lies in between the two extremes.

Copyright is about getting the balance right between the extent to which an end user can freely use and share copyrighted material.  If use and sharing occurs on too wide a scale, sales are lost as some people get used to acquiring things for free instead of paying for them.  If use and sharing is too heavily restricted, people are deterred from buying said products (as they get limited rights to use what they paid money for) and the heavy restrictions on free sharing inhibit the spread of product exposure and brand awareness, and therefore sales are lost.

A modest amount of "casual copying" probably has no detrimental overall effect on sales and may even help them in the long run.  People are more likely to want to buy products if they can freely use them on multiple media, or play 2-4 player multiplayer with one copy of a computer game, than if they are required to buy multiple copies to do those things.  People who gain exposure to products through casual copying, including making copies of products for friends, often go on to buy subsequent incarnations. 

However, forms of mass distribution of copyrighted material such as uploading to peer2peer file sharing sites almost certainly harm sales.  This is particularly true of mass counterfeit sales, where products are sold such that revenues go to those who make the copies and not the original publishers/developers, in which case sales are definitely lost.

Thus I propose that it is the mass free/counterfeit distribution of copyrighted products that we need to be clamping down on.  I am strongly against the present-day emphasis on targeting downloaders, as many of them do have a conscience (e.g. "try before you buy") and in many ways it targets the symptoms rather than the root of the problem.  Those responsible for distributing the material- uploaders, counterfeit sellers etc- should be the targets.

 

Get rid of the use of copy protection and digital rights management for offline use of products.

Digital rights management (DRM) is increasingly being abused to try to wrangle more money out of paying customers, in the misguided belief that if restrictions are tightened, people will pay more for what they get instead of making do with less.   Uses that used to be considered "fair use" are criminalised and categorised as "piracy", requiring that people pay extra to acquire uses that used to be free, and stigmatising the prior "fair uses" as "stealing" by extension of the flawed "piracy is stealing" argument.   For example, tying software to a single computer and stating that if the hard disk fails or a new graphics card is installed, you have to buy it again, or else you're a software pirate and therefore a "thief".   Meanwhile, unauthorised copies are usually free from any such restrictions- giving a massive incentive to crack, distribute and download such unauthorised copies on a large scale.

Online authentication systems have numerous problems of their own as well.  For example if a product has to be authenticated online, if the server goes down, the product becomes unusable.  Such online activation can also be used to kill long-standing legal practices such as the used products market and prevent loaning of products.  Since such online activation is usually cracked shortly after it is introduced, it is only really an effective deterrent to "casual copying"- the same "casual copying" that probably helps sales in the long run more than it harms them.

The argument "the minority have to spoil it for the majority" (which, morally speaking, is what this approach boils down to- the harmful mass copying practices are perpetuated only by a minority) is particularly dangerous here, for if the industries get too draconian against paying customers they risk losing said customers.   It is highly likely that the growth of the harmful mass forms of distribution is partly the result of a backlash against intrusive measures that were aimed to prevent casual copying.

 

Focus on rewarding people for buying products such as providing extras with original boxed copies, and where feasible, giving extra online support to those who paid for them

Wherever possible we need to find ways of offering support to people who buy products, and make it unavailable to those who do not.  It will not stop unauthorised copying, but it will make those who engage in it more likely to want to buy the products to benefit from the extras.

In the computer software industry, I like the policy that games developer Stardock uses, where games are free from DRM and copy protection, but to get extra online support, such as official patches and online multiplayer servers, it requires an Impulse account which is tied to the copy purchased.  A modest amount of offline casual copying is still rendered possible, but it makes anything more than that very difficult unless one is happy to make do with no support, or hunt around for cracks for everything (which often contain trojans and viruses).  In the long run many people who initially get copies of such products may well be tempted to buy them for the ease of receiving online support via Impulse, resulting in extra sales in the long run.

Valve's "Steam" system is an even better example regarding online support for paying customers (most PC gamers, myself included, consider it to offer a good deal these days), but I maintain reservations about the "online authentication upon installation" idea which most DRM options go for.  Developers are coming up with their own online authentication systems, which are often far more draconian, and there is also a risk of gamers having to activatedifferent games with accounts on lots of different DRM systems.

I am in favour of the move towards offering more products for purchase via digital download, as long as it occurs alongside traditional boxed distribution rather than replacing it- this goes for all forms of entertainment. 

 

Patents need to strike a balance because while in moderation patents encourage innovation, when applied excessively they stifle innovation.

In essence, over-use of patents makes it difficult to come up with new ideas because most of the means of using them are patented to other people and companies.  It can also lead to consumers being denied access to products, and technological development being stifled, as people can patent inventions and then "sit on them" and charge large sums of money for anyone who wants to use anything vaguely related to them.  Patents are often made as vague and wide-ranging as possible, particularly in the USA, which has this kind of stifling effect.

However, patents are a useful way of ensuring that people who come up with revolutionary ideas don't have others pinching their ideas and then rolling in the cash, and it is hard to suggest a better alternative, so I do not advocate doing away with patents completely.

Patents should only apply to unique inventions that are "novel, practical and nonobvious" (to quote EU laws) and should be strictly defined to cover the inventions, NOT as vaguely and widely as possible.  And certain aspects of the world where patenting almost invariably leads to more stifling of innovation than encouragement, like thoughts, views, story plots, and software codes, should not be subject to patents.

I suggest that EU patent laws as of 2009 come reasonably close to getting the balance right but some other parts of the world could do with relaxing their patent laws.