Why you shouldn't pay for your CDs

Recently, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) won a court battle that effectively shuts down Napster, the internet mp3 sharing program (they have now been allowed to keep operating until their appeal). This rant is not about this particular trial or its futility, but rather about how I believe the meaning of copyright will change or even disappear in the near future.

Thanks to computers, it's getting easier and easier to share information. It started with printers and floppy disks, then zip disks, CD-recordables, and broadband internet access. Companies trying to protect digital information from being duplicated have been fighting a losing battle; there is no, and there never can be, a perfect copy protection, be it for software, text, music, or other information.

Here in the Netherlands we like to compare it to the locks on our bicycles. If you put your bike somewhere in the city center, you'd better tether it to a streetlight or something equally immobile or there's a good chance it will be gone within the hour. You're effectively making it a little harder, although far from impossible (some sturdy wirecutters will do the trick), to steal your bicycle.

With digital information it's exactly the same; developers can try to make it harder to circumvent software protections, but they still can and will be overridden by clever hackers, simply because any check a program performs can be skipped if you alter the program code in the right way. As soon as someone, somewhere in the world does this, the software can be copied around the world. In practice, new software packages spread throughout the internet in a matter of days or even hours.

For text or music it's even simpler; there is no way to protect it, period. I find it amusing when people from, for example, the music business say they've come up with a new music format that's protected against illegal copying: all anyone has to do is play the music, digitally record the stream of bits coming from the soundcard, and storing it in a non-safe format like mp3. When electronic books become popular, it will be relatively easy for hackers to extract the text they're seeing on their monitors. There will never be a way to protect static information like text or music.

Knowing this, it's not that big a leap to conclude that a LOT of people are going to read pirated books, listen to pirated music, watch pirated movies and run pirated software. It's against the law, of course, and may be unethical, but for the majority of people that's no reason not to do it. Compare it to littering if you will; many people do this, usually because they're lazy and don't think about the consequences. Even eating meat from the bioindustry is very similar: it saves us a little money, and if we think about it many of us think it's not right to use animals merely as a meat factory, but we don't really care (myself included) because we don't see the effects on a daily basis. Pirating software and music also saves us a little money and we're seldom directly confronted with the consequences.

By the way, I know things are a little different in America than in Europe (and probably there are differences with the other parts of the world, too). Here in Europe, most people see some illegal copying by individuals (not companies) as acceptable, while in the US (to my knowledge) the prevailing opinion is that it's wrong, plain and simple. I'm not choosing sides (well, I probably am - read on), but I am saying that our cultures are different, so what's acceptable and what's not differs as well.

Now for the moral part of this rant (every rant should have one :-). Some of you may already have suspected it: I'm a criminal. I have used Napster to download copyrighted music, and I'm running illegal copies of software. Although I vaguely think me being a computer science student somehow makes that second crime less bad, just like people from ethnic minorities are allowed to make racist jokes about themselves (see previous rant :-).

Do I think illegal copying is wrong? I admit that sometimes I'm just being lazy and cheap (but then, who isn't? ... hello? anyone?), but in most cases I find it justified. Note however that I'm talking about copying for your own personal use, not copying for commercial use, and not copying something and saying you made it. More to the point, keep your mitts off our comics! ;-)

I have very little problems with copying music. Most popular 'artists' are simply cleverly marketed pretty people who haven't written a single lyric (?) in their life, don't play any instruments, etc. On the other hand, a lot of good music is produced by unknown bands who get next to nothing in return. If my actions help to put the big record labels out of business, I have no problem with that - I think the industry may improve with it. Good artists will become well-known through the internet and make money on concerts.

As for software, does anyone have a problem with "stealing" from companies like Microsoft? I certainly don't. They make "enough" money as is and I can't say I generally like what they do with it (I'm referring to aggressive marketing and takeovers, not the quality of their software). Microsoft will easily stay in business if it is paid only for commercial licenses of their software (and illegal commercial use is easier to combat and less of a problem) and I would love to see them become a little less arrogant.

Copying games is different. There are very few ways to use a game for commercial purposes (well, engine licensing, but then the problem shifts to the next developer), so commercial licenses bring in no real money. The individual gamer's buck is really the lifeforce of game developers. So the right thing to do is pay for the games you play a lot. I must admit that I have not ..ahem.. always done so in the past.

My conclusion from all this is that the amount of copying will increase because it's getting ever easier to do and many people will have no moral problems about doing it. It will change a lot about the way we view information and copyright; some of those changes may be for the better, others will not. But they can't be stopped, no matter how much we or the industry would want to.

(C) Jan Niestadt, July 28th 2000.

I suspect that at least one person will flame me. In fact, I demand it. You may also feel compelled to quote bible verses or report me to the authorities.

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