Copyrights and Wrongs


Among my collection of vinyl records is a greatest-hits album by the British group Squeeze.  It’s a good disc, but what concerns me today is the manufacturer’s message stamped on a corner of the sleeve:  “Home Taping is Killing Music – And It’s Illegal.”  The warning is illustrated with a clever logo of an audio cassette redesigned as a skull and crossbones.  My Squeeze album is from 1982.

If home taping was killing music more than thirty years ago, it’s been a long, drawn-out death, and there’s been at least one clear casualty – you can hardly find audio cassettes anymore.  Similar cautions now preface modern DVD movies (that little video that begins “You wouldn’t steal a car…”), yet movies, so far as I can tell, remain a viable industry. Further, as a longtime library employee I’ve had to stay abreast of evolving copyright laws which prohibit patrons from duplicating more than X amount of material from library collections.  Theoretically, library staff are supposed to police the use of books and magazines near the photocopiers.   Clearly this is not something soon to be resolved.

Copyright is an issue I’m qualified to see from both sides.  As a published writer, I own the intellectual property represented by my books, and I want to be properly compensated for their use by others.  Anyone who scans or downloads chunks of Magus, Musician Man or Out of Our Heads is, in principle, ripping me off.  (To protect myself, I’ve registered with state-run Canadian authors’ groups which dole out small annual sums to professional scribes whose works are in print or available in libraries.)  Yet as an ordinary reader, listener, and viewer, I own plenty of articles, music, and films obtained only for the price of blank paper, tapes, and discs.  There are many journalists, musicians, and filmmakers out there whose products I’ve enjoyed without their receiving a dime from me – and never mind my extensive array of Led Zeppelin bootlegs, which must have the band’s notoriously possessive manager Peter Grant rolling in his grave.  So which moral and legal position on copyright should I take?

The problem with copyright rules today is that the technology to reproduce and disseminate information has become far more accessible than the technology which makes the originals.  Making your own print of Gone With the Wind in 1939 or your own acetate of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964 would have been wildly impractical; not any more.  To film an epic movie might cost $200 million, but to put it on a computer costs next to nothing. Legitimately watching the movie in theaters, of course, still costs a lot less than the picture’s budget, but at least the money recouped there will eventually make its way back to the producers.  It’s an economic truism, however, that consumers naturally gravitate to the least expensive – or the free – acquisitions. And it’s nearly impossible to enforce copyright at the level of the teenager who rips a song, the parent who burns a show, or even the student who scans a textbook chapter and shares it with her classmates. All of them are violating the law, but none of them consider themselves criminals.  It isn’t just a case of “everyone does it,” but of “anyone can do it” – easily, quickly, and openly, so much so that there’s no time to reflect on the rightness or wrongness of the act. Breaking copyright may not be a victimless crime, but most of the time it sure feels like one.

Copying by individuals, certainly, is different from underground scammers pirating and selling multiple editions.  Legally, though, the distinction is vague, and the ethics of sharing versus ownership, of fair-use versus commerce, and of public versus private, remain unsettled.  For many of us, the sheer convenience of freely accessing copyrighted productions implies acceptability – if it were really against the law, goes the instinct, it would be a lot harder to do.  No doubt many publishers, studios, and record labels will keep devising more and more secure encryption to block unsanctioned use of their goods, just as clever hackers and ordinary folks will keep devising (or stumbling upon) ways around it. Personally, as a writer, I’m not sure whether to be outraged that someone might be reading my words without paying me for the privilege, or flattered that I’m being read at all.  In the meantime, here on this blog, help yourselves.

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