I had the opportunity of listening to a presentation by a poorly-informed faculty member at my school regarding copyright laws. This was an eye-opening experience for me into the way those who believe to have a solid grasp of copyright view it. My class of 30+ students listened intently, believing everything they were told, as Mrs. Smith started her lecture…
This teacher (whom I’m referring to as Mrs. Smith) is very knowledgeable about what she does. Her job mandates that she know a lot of “facts” about copyright. (“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.” – Maya Angelou) It is quite apparent that she learned about copyright from the same place as other teachers who are obsessed with “facts” about it. Just do a Google search for “copyright for teachers” to see what I mean.
The presentation started with Mrs. Smith explaining to us a very basic overview of what copyright it, things even monkeys probably know. (Though, I admit, the class was not packed with monkeys.) “Any violation of copyright law is called plagiarism,” she explained. She went on to tell us a story about a woman from Duluth who was caught downloading only 24 songs illegally, and was charged over $200,000. “You will get caught,” she exclaimed. The truth behind this court case was obscured by her “facts”. The lady in question, Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, was sent a text message by the record companies telling her that they knew she was sharing at least 1,702 songs, and that she needed to stop immediately. She didn’t. She received a letter in the mail asking her to settle for a rather small amount of money. She replaced her hard drive, and took the issue to court. The lawsuit itself was over only 24 of those songs, for which she was charged $222,000.
“Do you know who you are stealing from?” she asked. “The artists. Every time you illegally download a song, those artists lose the money that is rightfully theirs.” In reality, though, the artists only make about $1 from every full-length CD sold. Online, it can be an even lower percentage. It has been shown that illegal file sharing actually helps the artists, though no major media company will allow these types of stories on their news networks. Think about it this way: the artists see so little of the money that their music sells for. Sharing this music gets it out to more people, boosting the popularity of the artist. If you were an artist, would you rather have your music reach everybody in the world and become extremely popular, or reach fewer people and make a small sum of money from the sales? Most of an artist’s revenue comes from live concerts, and ticket prices are directly correlated with popularity. “Some artists put their music in the public domain, just to get it out there, but almost all free downloads you find are illegal,” stated Mrs. Smith. Artists don’t benefit from public domain music, which is probably the reason that very few public domain tracks exist. Most prefer a Creative Commons (or another “some rights reserved”) license, which carries the attribution clause. She made the assumption that anyone with a copyright will protect all of his/her rights. This is not the case with the music I compose, nor is it the case with the thousands of people on Jamendo and similar sites.
Regarding academic copyright, Mrs. Smith explained the concept of “fair use”. “If you are working for academic reasons, you get additional benefits from this system. You can use any copyrighted material you find in schoolwork, as long as you cite the creator appropriately, and use only pieces small enough to be accepted as ‘fair use’. Now, fair use includes…” I raised my hand. “What about the DMCA?” “What about it?” “If it comes from an encrypted source, we are not permitted to touch it, even for ‘fair use’.” “You’re right. Every now and then you come across a website that doesn’t allow you to right-click and copy. Those sites are the exception to this rule, but for everything else, this rule is effective.”
The worst part about Mrs. Smith’s presentation, though, was that the only argument she gave was fear. Her message can be summed up in a quote of hers: “Don’t do it – you will be caught.” When her husband brought home illegal DVDs, she apparently told him, “You may not play those on our DVD player. They are against the law, and we will be caught.” She told us about how the computers at school were constantly being monitored, and how any administrator could view the screen of any computer at any time. “Does anyone monitor your computer at home?” she asked random students throughout the class. Mrs. Smith “explained” to us who was monitoring our computer at home; she claimed that the police, the government, and our ISPs are monitoring our desktops at all times. The examples she cited mostly involved students getting seen with drugs/alcohol on their Myspace pages. Our government is becoming more and more involved as a Big Brother every day, but it still cannot watch desktop activity. It does have the ability to monitor packets from suspicious parties, but those parties are untouchable if they properly anonymity themselves. Microsoft has the ability to do so much more than the government, so why didn’t she mention them?
Copyright infringement should not be based on fear. Fear is a very powerful tool that is all to often exploited by governments and those in power to get the information they want stuffed into people’s minds. Where do you think Mrs. Smith learned this information? Was it a credible source? Chances are it was, which brings up the question of who you can really trust. If people stopped blindly trusting the government, what would happen to fear as a propaganda technique? When discussing copyright, it is best to decide where your ethics are. “Should I share an ogg (or mp3) of this out of print CD with my friend?” “Should I consider a small violation of the DMCA a crime if I will only be using the content for what used to be called ‘fair use’?” “Should I cite this public domain resource?” “Should I tell my friends about this artist and give them this audio file to get them interested?” “Should I download this BBC documentary I found on BitTorrent so I can learn about Elephant migration patterns for my report on African mammals?” There are so many possibilities. The government has drawn an unreasonably inhibitory line in the dirt, and used fear to enforce it. As a result, the only way to figure out what is right or wrong is to make the ethical decision yourself.