Sunday, April 29, 2007

Copyright Stupidity

I hate current copyright law. I'm not a lawyer and I haven't gone over all of it with a fine-toothed comb, but much of it is dumb and preventing most of us regular people from engaging in activities that are educational, entertaining, and enlightening. What else is there to live for?

Many of you know that I'm our DMCA agent. I know that downloading and sharing copyrighted material is illegal. I don't condone it. But I also know that the music industry brought some of that on itself by not coming up with a viable business model for online music sales, by using DRM, and by not selling a good portion of its catalog most of the time. And the RIAA, the MPAA, and other organizations tend to treat their customers like criminals, mostly in the tactics they use to attempt to keep people from illegally downloading music. And those tactics don't really stop the downloading, and they are sometimes wrong. A recent Economist article points this out:
Belatedly, music executives have come to realise that DRM simply doesn’t work. It is supposed to stop unauthorised copying, but no copy-protection system has yet been devised that cannot be easily defeated. All it does is make life difficult for paying customers, while having little or no effect on clandestine copying plants that churn out pirate copies.
I don't like the way the RIAA is basically making colleges (and ISPs generally) do their work for them. It's akin to the FBI calling up a neighbor, telling them they think I have a stolen item in my house and would they go check please and have me return it. But this is the deal struck in the DMCA so that colleges and ISPs wouldn't get sued. Myself and another staff person spend a couple of hours or so each week investigating claims, writing notes to students, following up with students, shutting off their internet access and then restoring that access when they comply.

But the RIAA isn't the only organization that's copyright happy. Other publishers have been overstepping their bounds as well. If you don't follow the science blog beat, there was a pretty big scuffle over fair use of some figures by science blogger Shelley Batts, which I found via Janet and which made the rounds of the big blogs and landed in Scientific American. Here is the fair use clause:
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
The copyright office recommends always getting permission because the fair use guidelines are not clear. Lovely, huh? We have unclear laws, so we're going to put the burden on you all, especially academics, to make sure you're not violating the law while doing work that benefits society as a whole. As more and more academic work goes online, publicly, this is going to be a huge issue, simply because that work will be more visible and may then be open to more cease and desist notices. Something that is in the public good may get restricted because of poorly worded and poorly understood copyright laws. I recommend a visit to the EFF to support changes to the DMCA that will help fair use.

Another way in which our copyright and royalty structures hamper us is in the reproduction in new formats of movies and tv shows. Anyone remember the Eyes on the Prize dilemma? Here is a rundown. Basically, the production company couldn't afford to renew licenses for news footage and especially music that had been used to create the film and so they couldn't show it again on tv or reproduce it in DVD format. Although the Eyes on the Prize case got a lot of publicity because of the obvious benefit to the public of showing this documentary, this kind of thing happens to lots of films and tv shows. Remember WKRP? Well, they can't make a DVD box set of it with the original music. Denis Hancock puts it best:

Now of course it’s important for music labels to protect their IP, make money from it, and all the rest. But for some reason I have this notion that if my Dad got to re-live one of his favorite shows (while paying for the privilege), and be reintroduced to some of his favorite music from the time he might do something crazy like try to buy the full songs or CDs! Or he might have me watch the show with him, like I vaguely remember doing many years ago - and I might hear music I never even knew existed! And I might buy something too!

Nope - can’t have that. If someone had an emotional reaction to Johnny Fever blaring the Ted Nugent rocker when the station mercifully flipped back from a temporary move to easy listening… can you imagine the chaos that might ensue? It must be far, far better to keep the music under lock and key and make sure no hears it so, er, money can be made. Right.

Shooting themselves in the foot, these people. I don't understand it. Not to mention the real loss to the study of American movie and tv culture if these artifacts are destroyed. Sure libraries can archive these movies and shows (because of fair use). Libraries don't archive everything. Sometimes they don't know they need to until a professor comes to them and says, "Hey, I'm studying x. Do we have that available somewhere?" And then, sometimes, after a fruitless search, we find that x no longer exists.

Finally, we have the whole "analog hole" problem. The MPAA and the RIAA are attempting to close the analog hole, which is a) nearly impossible and b) would make it impossible to do some very basic tasks, like watch tv. Film studies folks have been granted permission to circumvent copy protection in order to make film clips for teaching and research, but ip owners are still forging ahead with making copy protection harder and harder to circumvent. One day, we may have to pay out the nose for equipment that will allow us to do our jobs.

So let's review, the RIAA extorts money from people, publishers don't understand fair use, we don't have access to older video material because producers can't afford to renew music licenses, and copy protection measures continue to increase. And I didn't even talk about YouTube and Viacom. Great world we live in, eh?