Perhaps the saddest loss in the battle for the protection of digital consumers’ rights has been the successful attempt by Big Media to claim the moral high ground by labeling those who would dare to reclaim their fair-use rights pirates. As countless tyrants have discovered throughout the ages, demonizing one’s opponents is a fantastic way to win public support for totalitarian policies designed to protect the people from a perceived threat. So it is that the “War on Piracy” has managed to gain considerable momentum, to the point where such draconian laws as the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act are considered uncontroversial.
Not only have the recording, motion picture and software industries waged a legal campaign against those suspected of copyright infringement (I say suspected, as hardly any of these cases go to court) so excessive that even the sluggish American public balks at it, they have sought to wage a moral crusade against the “pirates” who “rob” from “starving” multi-millionaire record executives. How ironic, then, how blissfully, sublimely poetic that the biggest, baddest media conglomerate of them all, Sony, has been caught violating the copyrights of open-source programmers in order that they might infect unsuspecting consumers’ computers with malicious, virus-like software.
For those of you who haven’t followed the story, Sony’s latest batch of digital rights management (DRM) infected CDs covertly installs a trojan on a customer’s computer as soon as the CD is placed in the drive. The malware then hides itself from view, and hooks directly into the operating system kernel in order to prevent unauthorized copying of the CD tracks, while destabilizing the host computer and opening a bevy of security vulnerabilities in the process.
As it turns out, Sony is more evil than it is smart. Rather than write this virus all on their own, they instead stole key chunks of code from a team of open-source programmers who had charitably made their code available to the world on the condition that anybody using it do the same. The license which the programmers used is known as the GNU Public License (GPL), the same license used by the popular operating system Linux and the popular web browser Firefox.
What are we to make of this? Do media executives only believe in copyright when it serves their interests? Could it be that the holier-than-thou media conglomerates are just as guilty of piracy as the file-sharing Joe College Student? The answer to both questions is yes, and thus one is forced to conclude that the anti-piracy commercials that bombard us in movie theaters are in fact the pinnacle of hypocrisy.
But so what if media companies are just as guilty as file sharers? There’s still the fact that these new technologies will destroy an industry and put millions of Americans out of business, won’t they? Well, the recording industries tried to make player piano rolls, cassette tapes, library loans, DAT, video tape, secondhand music stores and recordable CDs illegal. They failed at all these things, and now recording content is considered fair use. These industries also insisted over the last 100 years that libraries, VCRs, player pianos and secondhand book and CD stores would ruin them and put their poor starving children on the streets. Didn’t happen. They are all richer than God now.
The same media companies now insist that file sharing will destroy them; such pronouncements should be taken with a grain of salt given their track record with these sorts of things. Technological advancement may destroy business models, and those businesses too slow to react to the driving force of human progress, but if history is any guide, massive improvements in efficiency tend to make a lot of people very rich and society as a whole a lot better off.
There is no moral issue here either; copying is not stealing. Lighting a candle with another candle doesn’t diminish either, as Thomas Jefferson so famously said. As a libertarian, I look with suspicion upon any government-granted monopoly; however, I recognize the utility of encouraging the advancement of the arts and sciences. We didn’t, however, create copyright to make people rich and loaded with “rights” to distribute media and knowledge. We created copyrights to permit authors to make a living, for a limited time, on new art, and then to let it be free to inspire new art. If copyrights no longer serve that purpose, they have to go.
I lost all sympathy for the copyright holders when the Sonny Bono Act made copyrights practically eternal. There was a 200-year-old deal: we give you a limited time to make money and a living, then it gets kicked into the public domain. That deal is broken, and it isn’t getting fixed. I do not want to see intellectual property eternally locked up in the vaults of immortal corporations. Human advancement requires that works of art and science be distributed freely at some point, but that can no longer happen. The deal is broken. We did not break it — they did.
Will Wilson is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.