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Editor's Note: Copying is Stealing

Jul 02, 2010, 22:05 (128 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Linux and Free/Open Source software are entirely dependent on copyrights, and some FOSS fans get pretty righteous on the subject, especially for GPL violations. And yet when it comes to music, movies, and books some think the same respect for copyrights doesn't apply, and it's OK to collect copies of works without paying for them. We can hardly criticize the RIAA, MPAA, ASCAP, Sony BMG, and all the other hostile, clueless over-reaching forces of darkness without having clean hands ourselves.

Some of the excuses for stealing copyrighted materials are:

1. It's not really stealing, it's multiplying.
2. It's free publicity and leads to more sales.
3. They're all rich evil jerks who deserve the worst.

I long ago gave up trying to understand the finer points of copyright law because it's a corrupt mess, and the RIAA et all don't pay attention to it anyway, but rely on bullying, intimidation, and abuse of the courts to achieve their ends. What are their goals? It's hard to say; to me it looks like a combination of lawyers justifying their salaries, and executives getting off on being evil. I'm convinced it has nothing to do with sound business decisions, I think it's just plain fun for them. Woa look at me, big man in a suit beating up children, dead people, and anyone who ever dared to hum in the shower without giving me money! It's moronic and self-defeating, and yet the less effective their bullying is the harder they try. Makes me wonder if there is a Darl McBride gene.

Courtney Love Does the Math, Frank Zappa Sees the Future

Courtney Love gave a great talk on piracy way back in 2000 to the Digital Hollywood online entertainment conference. She sets the tone of her talk right at the start:
"Today I want to talk about piracy and music. What is piracy? Piracy is the act of stealing an artist's work without any intention of paying for it. I'm not talking about Napster-type software.

I'm talking about major label recording contracts."

It is worth reading the whole speech. Ms. Love was ahead of her time in grasping the core issues.

So was Frank Zappa, who way back in 1983 proposed online music distribution:


"...The consumer has the option of subscribing to one or more Interest Categories, charged at a monthly rate, without regard for the quantity of music he or she decides to tape.

"Providing material in such quantity at a reduced cost could actually diminish the desire to duplicate and store it, since it would be available any time day or night."

No duh! We old people from the vinyl LP era had a habit of playing our LPs only once-- to copy them to a high-quality cassette tape. LPs are prone to damage and not very portable, and cheaped-down to the minimum thickness. Commercially-recorded cassettes were garbage. Compare an LP from the 1970s to one from the 1950s-- the older one is thicker and heavier.

We also liked to make custom mix tapes and swap them with friends because commercial radio was garbage. If you didn't have access to a good college or independent radio station, lots of luck discovering interesting new artists. Home-made custom mix cassette tapes are credited with spreading Western pop and rock music in Eastern bloc countries back in the day.

So why am I now being all righteous and calling copying theft?


Before Disney and Sonny Bono, copyright law was reasonable. Rights holders were granted a limited monopoly of 7 years, plus 7 14 years, plus 14 more if they chose to renew, and then their works passed into the public domain. This had many advantages: Creators had a chance at making a living from their works. It gave an escape hatch to creators who signed bad contracts. It prevented orphaned works. It enriched the common culture. Now we have this crazy complex retroactive system of virtually-forever copyrights, perpetrated by corporate interests to protect what they ripped off in the first place.

I don't see anything wrong with liberal personal use, like making multiple copies for different personal devices and in different formats, or making mashups for fun, or other non-commercial adaptations. One of the big problems with the current copyright enforcement insanity is it tramples personal use and invades our homes.

Just like back in the days of sharing mix tapes, modern file-sharing can be an effective form of promotion. I think that any kind of sharing that leads to more income for artists is somewhat justifiable, though this is an over-used excuse for copying and never paying. You and I both know freeloaders who have gigabytes of music, movies, and books they never paid a cent for.

Paying Artists

Staying focused on one simple principle clears away any confusion: creative artists have a right to be paid. If we enjoy a piece of recorded music, a book, drawing, photo, movie, and the condition of owning a copy of that work is paying for it, then not paying for it is stealing. Legally it is copyright infringement, but I call it stealing, just like shoplifting or any petty theft. Because the person with the free copy is getting the benefit of it but the artist gets nothing. I know that the entertainment and publishing industries have a long and dirty history of ripping off artists-- two wrongs don't make a right. We are not entitled to enjoy the fruits of other people's labors and talents simply because it is so very easy to copy and distribute it for free; that's theft, it's freeloading, and it's morally repugnant.

One of more repugnant entitlement attitudes that keeps getting parroted is "Give away your recordings and make money doing live performances." That is selfish and utterly clueless. First of all, a music CD or download is an incredible bargain for both the customer and the artist. We buy a recording for a few dollars, and then we get to enjoy the talent and hard work of our favorite performers whenever and wherever we want. We don't have to wait for them to come give a live show, and then pay a lot more money for a lot more hassle, and sometimes less enjoyment. They get to create a good, pleasing recording under controlled conditions and then share it with as many fans as want it.

Giving live performances is expensive and exhausting, and it limits the audience to whoever can physically attend and fit into the venue. I just can't fathom the mentality that sees something as wonderful as a music recording as something they have a right to possess for free. I suppose authors should give away books and then charge to give live readings, and I don't know what moviemakers should do-- stage plays? Photographers-- slide shows? Get real. This attitude of entitlement at the expense of creators and artists is exactly what fuels the abuses of the entertainment industry. The ability of any rights holder to make a little money from recordings or books is already very limited-- they only get a cut of the first sale. Subsequent re-sales in the used market don't make them a cent. (The second-hand market has long been a useful promotional venue and alternative for people who can't afford new works.)


We've been spoiled by decades of advertiser-subsidized entertainment. We're not really getting TV and radio for free, we pay every day in torrents of shlock crowding out works of genuine artistry, creativity, and value. The advertiser-supported model is by its nature corrupting, and it taints whatever it touches. Isn't it crystal-clear by now that this is the path to destruction? We get what they want to serve, which is only tools to sell crud, and boy howdy what crud it is. 95% of it could vanish tomorrow, with two immediate consequences: fewer yard sales, and garages with enough room to park cars in.

Internet distribution makes it possible, finally, for us to directly support our favorite artists and creators, to cut out the vast herds of parasites that come between us and creative artists, and to easily discover all kinds of great new stuff. Courtney Love said:

"Maybe each fan will spend less money, but maybe each artist will have a better chance of making a living. Maybe our culture will get more interesting than the one currently owned by Time Warner."
For gosh sakes, isn't this wonderful enough all by itself? Why wreck it with freeloading?