Wednesday, 22 April 2009

"The Pirate and The Patsy."

Last week there were pirates in Somalia and pirates in Sweden. The Swedish pirates were the administrators and the financial backer of the torrent site, the Pirate Bay. Last Friday they were sentenced to one year in prison and a €2.7 million fine. The court found them guilty on the charge of “assisting making available copyrighted content.” In other words, they were charged with facilitating copyright infringement.

The Pirate Bay is a patsy. The internet has changed the world. For the first time in human civilisation, we have an ‘information economy’: an economy predicated on the transfer of digital information. Music, books, and movies can now be easily copied without an absolute minimum of cost. Content protected by copyright law can be distributed worldwide instantaneously. The creators of the Pirate Bay are being demonised by a conglomerate of large media corporations: the Pirate Bay is suffering because of corporations’ stubborn refusal to adapt to the new environment.

This decade has seen a Resurgence of the Commons. As capitalism developed in the West and the industrial revolution got into full swing, wealthy landowners came and bought up what was previously common property: land that inhabitants of a village would have shared. This had its advantages since, as theorists from Aristotle to Garrett Hardin showed, there is invariably no incentive for any one person to take care of common property causing it to eventually fall into ruin or disrepair. In other words, because humans can’t share, private property became the norm. With the rise of the internet, we have seen a shared resource thrive. We have seen a resurgence in commonly accessible property. Although the internet is not a truly common resource (I can only publish this because Google Inc., the owners of Blogger, allow me to squat on their server space), it does allow a greater amount of global co-operation than the world has previously seen. A lot of the internet is commercially owned but there is a lot of common material also made available. Projects like Wikimedia have shown that global common collaboration is possible and even beneficial.

This Resurgence isn’t good for those with a vested interest in private property ie. those who make money from media properties. In the same way that the wealthy landowners would not be happy if the villagers started taking back their village commons, the corporations that make their money from copyrighted content are not happy at the internet’s potential for sharing and easy breach of copyright. In cases such as Eldred v. Ashcroft, A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., and the Pirate Bay trial, corporations have asserted their sovereign property rights over their copyrighted content. In reaction to the internet’s ability to quickly copy content, they have had governments further restrict copyright law. Extremism only generates more extremism and now we have two camps: the corporations who assert absolute property rights on digital content and the sharers who assert that copyright law is completely unjust. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, with Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons licenses for example which give reasonable copyrights catered to the digital age.

The solution is not to tighten copyright law. The solution is not to blindly pretend that digital media and analog media can be treated in the same way: an MP3 is not the same as a CD. The solution is adaptation. The solution is change. Apple’s iTunes Store proves that it is possible to adapt a business model to fit the information economy, simply by making their system cheap and easy to use. Change is possible.

But there is a conglomeration of corporations who don’t want to change. They want things to be the same and they want their monopoly on the creation of content. As these leviathans writhe around in their death throes, bystanders get hit. Bystanders like Eric Eldred and the Pirate Bay.

The Pirate Bay trial has illustrated the double standards of the legal system. It is true that the Pirate Bay acts as an intermediary between people and downloadable torrents. It is true that if the site had not been up, then a great deal of copyrighted content would not have downloaded. But the same could be said of all weapons manufacturers. Weapons manufacturers act as an intermediary between people and murder. If the weapons manufacturers had not provided the tools, then shootings would not occur. The same could be said of car manufacturers. Isn’t Ford guilty of facilitating automobile accidents and the resulting deaths? If we are going to blame a company for what its customers do with the products it produces, then why aren’t we prosecuting across the board? Wherever copyright law is infringed, it is the facilitator’s fault; in everything else, it is the individual’s fault.

The internet has changed the world. Those who profited off the old system desperately want to return to the days before digital technology. Innovators of the new system get punished because they haven’t built up the wealth and power required to fight the old entrepreneurs. For more information, please see Chapter 5 of Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book Free Culture, available here under a Creative Commons License.


hamst3rf1sh said...

It seems to me that the Pirate Bay decision is inevitably going to end up being reversed. The problem being that when you set such a legal precedent, where do you draw the line with the claims of copyright infringement? How long will it be before companies like Microsoft find themselves under fire for allowing sharing of files across email and MSN? There are a great number of important sites (or at least in my mind they are) that will unwittingly be put under scrutiny where they've unintentionally allowed the spread of copyright materials.

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