Pourquoi, pourquoi pas ? (encore)


I understand that, given the chance, most consumers will steal media without a second thought.

I think this is true, although perhaps a bit too strong. What’s interesting to me is why it’s true, because I’ve found that most people are quite honest. They wouldn’t dream of stealing a CD from a store, so why would they create an infringing copy of the same content?

I think the answer is: Because the media industry has screwed itself.

I think the reason people don’t see infringement as immoral is because they don’t understand the social contract that underlies copyright law. And that’s because the social contract has been trashed so thoroughly by the media industry that it’s effectively invisible. Joe Average isn’t stupid, but he’s not an IP lawyer and given that he has never seen any copyrights expire during his lifetime, and may never see it, the notion that copyright is a tradeoff of short-term disadvantage for long-term advantage never occurs to him, because as far as he knows it’s just a permanent restriction. Ask Joe who owns the copyright to Shakespeare’s works and he’s likely to think it’s a reasonable question.

Since Joe doesn’t see that tradeoff, he evaluates infringement in its most direct, immediate terms: Who does it hurt, who does it help, and how do those balance? Who does it hurt? Well, no one, really. Perhaps Joe might have paid for it if he couldn’t copy it, but maybe not, and besides those musicians are already millionaires, so it’s not like anyone is going to go hungry. The pain inflicted by the loss of a single sale on someone who lives in a mansion and drives a Ferrarri is negligible. Who does it help? Why, Joe. Not in any huge way, but it gives him some music to listen to that he might not have otherwise been able to afford.

Ignoring the issue of what copyright is supposed to do, Joe’s moral calculus is compelling. Weighing a clear good against a questionable and negligibly-small bad, the result is a no-brainer. If you throw in arguments about what would happen if everyone copied instead of buying, the waters are muddied a bit, but since that’s not in imminent danger of occurring, it’s a red herring.

If the media industry wants Joe to feel some moral obligation to honor copyright, they should push to go back to reasonable copyright terms, so that Joe can see the value of the copyright system as evidenced by the flow of materials into the public domain. When there’s lots of stuff that he can copy, legally and without qualm, he’ll be more concerned about the propriety of making infringing copies.

Personally, I saw that evolution in myself with respect to software. Before I switched over to using primarily Free software, I had no qualms about copying software that I knew I wasn’t going to purchase — and that even though I was a software developer making my living from copyrighted software. When I found that I could do most of what I needed to without infringing, though, I began to be offended by the idea of casual infringement. After a few years of Free software usage, I actually get angry at people who illegally copy software, and I don’t use any commercial software without paying for it. I also don’t copy music or movies illegally. I do download TV shows, but only because I can justify that I could have sucked them off the cable, albeit less conveniently.


J’aurais pas dit mieux.