Sunday, October 12, 2008

WSJ: In Defense of Piracy

I just read an interesting essay by Lawrence Lessig in the Wall Street Journal about copyright law and its role in preventing piracy. This particular topic is one that has fascinated me for some time (I took the LSAT a little over a year ago; I had, and have, dreams of going to law school to study Intellectual Property Law). What I like most about the article is how Lessig puts things into a good context, showing the personal side (in part to play on the reader's emotions) of copyright law, and also showing how the law is dated and a bit out of touch.

Personally, I will admit to having downloaded music illegally, as have countless thousands of people my age. It's not something I'd say I'm proud of, and I completely understand where the artists and their lawyers are coming from. But what I don't understand is how they honestly thought their plan would work. Teenagers (as I was when I did most of my illegal downloading, first on the mighty and long-gone Napster) are not only rebellious, but ignorant. When they see a rock star they like in a music video doing things they could only dream of doing (owning expensive cars, hanging around famous people, living in mansions, etc.), they assume the artist has boatloads of cash, and if I were to download this album without paying, it won't really hurt the artist too much. It's not right, but it's how teenagers think.

Scott Adams, in The Dilbert Blog a while back, made some great observations on this topic, and many readers of the blog (who are far more intelligent than me) made some interesting comments. Adams, from what I remember, broke it down along his terms, as he was a victim of copyright infringement and downright theft. He argued, quite convincingly, that just because it's easy to do does not make it harmless. Downloading a song is easy, especially in the broadband days (I had a funny conversation Friday night with a friend about the good ol' days of dial-up). It only takes a few minutes (yes that's a bit of an exaggeration) to download an entire album. And, you know that there's a 99.99% chance you will not get caught. If you look at it from a risk standpoint alone, it's easy to see why people do it.

But the article by Lessig only briefly touches upon peer-to-peer downloading. He begins the article talking about a woman who put a video (see below) of her 13 month old son dancing to a song by Prince. The audio is tough to decipher, but that didn't stop the big record company from going after Youtube and the poor woman. Her intentions were simple: she couldn't justifiably e-mail the video to all of her family, so she put it on Youtube. It's obvious to most people that it's just a goofy, and funny, home video. But that didn't stop the lawyers. It's just sad.

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