My take on Copyright and File Sharing

Creativity depends on a content producer being able to build on what has come before, but it also relies on the producer being protected and entitled to the benefits of his/her efforts.  If I study hard and work tirelessly to become a master musician or a programmer or an athlete, I should gain the rewards for it as well.  Someone who didn’t work to earn it shouldn’t feel entitled to the value of what I produce, and certainly should not be reaping the benefits of what I produce.

So what is free to take without permission and what requires the permission of the producer?  Copyright law makes the distinction between an idea and the form of an idea.  An idea is free to use and is exempt from ownership.  The way an idea is expressed, however, is owned by the person who originates that form of expression.  In my case as a programmer, I can rely on the principles of mathematics – I don’t have to attribute 1 + 2 = 3 to anyone else.  However, I can safely claim my method of applying that math to a specific problem and charge money for it or not.

Speaking of money, what does a purchase mean anyways?  It is a contract between a content producer and a content consumer, the consumer compensating the producer for the value they get out of the content.  Like any contract, it is subject to the intentions and interpretations of both parties.  If the value a consumer gets from the content is outside of the intention of the producer, does the consumer infringe on the producer’s right to the content?

I would argue that yes, the contract should be adhered to by both the consumer and the producer.  So in that case, who should enforce the contract?  Besides that consumer having an ethical obligation to the contract, the producer should be able to protect his/her legal right to the content. 

The government and industries representing the content producers have tried to make it easier for producers to safeguard their rights to their content.  Their efforts were unpopular, but have made it general knowledge that certain forms of file sharing are illegal and may be prosecuted.  If there is a complaint to be made about these efforts, it has to be that consumer behavior is intelligent and requires finesse.  The online community appreciates respect and disdains force, and lawsuits and subpoenas and file encryption are the exact opposite way to achieve compliance. 

The success of Radiohead in asking for as much as the fans were willing to pay for their album rather than loading their songs with DRM represents a contract in which both the consumers and the producers win.  In this model, the producers make their money, the consumers are respected and, most importantly, the contract is honored – no enforcement necessary.

Do I have it right?  wrong?  What do you think about copyright and file sharing?


Radiohead article: