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Filesharing: copyright has always been a bit broken but we never noticed

I was chatting to someone at a party on Saturday night about copyright. The gentleman I was chatting with was strongly in favour of strict enforcement of copyright. He was advocating fining people who share copyright material online.

It got me thinking. Once you consider the problem in offline terms it seems that many of the problems of copyright content have been with us since the days of Gutenberg. And that problem has always been related to re-distribution (or ‘file sharing’) of copyright material.

Before the advent of modern printing copyright was unnecessary. Even in the early days of the printing press copyright did not really matter since it was so difficult to produce a book and to then distribute that book widely.

The reason for this was technological. In that the constraints in distributing printed matter meant that wide distribution was hard to do. For example, just look how big and heavy this Gutenberg Bible is to move around. You would not like to be down at the local market trying to move a lot of this model.

But with the Protestant Reformation there was a drive to put the bible into the hands of all Christians, and to ensure that they could also read. This led to a focus on improving the technology of the new device (a.k.a. the book). Very quickly with this strong support from Church (and often State as well) the book began to resemble its modern petite dimensions. With this change in technology – i.e. smaller lighter books and better printing machinery – distribution suddenly became much easier and the problem of people sharing copyright content started to rear its ugly head.

And, at the same time, the other problem facing copyright content popped up its head – file sharing (a.k.a. sharing books with other people who had not paid for them). Thus even since the Protestant Reformation file sharing has been a problem.

Once the book became a portable device the issue of file sharing became a problem. The second hand bookshop became the place where file sharing took place. People also did it at home or work – bringing in their books to pass along to another person.

As a society we came to accept this as part of the deal. So what is the big problem when we have the same behaviour in the digital space? I suspect it is a problem of scale. Suddenly I can purchase one copy of some content and then share it with many people around the world, who can in turn share it with many others.

But we are not going to solve this problem by telling people not to do it. It is too easy to do. Also legal alternatives are not as easy as doing the wrong thing. iTunes is probably the easiest of all the mechanisms for acquiring digital content legally. Many others are just too hard. Recently I tried to do the right thing and purchase some digital music only to be told by every supplier that I can’t have it because I live in Australia and it has not been released to us yet.

These kind of distribution problems make it to easy for consumers to do the wrong thing. Until we have ubiquitous solutions that are as low impact and as easy to use as iTunes; with material freely available for purchase in every region it will be hard to stop digital sharing.

And let’s not even get into a discussion about the inequity of the situation where I can buy a book and then give it to a friend but cannot even share my one digital item across all my machines so I can consume it where I want. After all I can consume the content of a book where ever I choose. There are still some technology issues to be solved here too for digital.

3 thoughts on “Filesharing: copyright has always been a bit broken but we never noticed”

  1. I agree with what you have said. But computers have added a new issue. With a book you can sell or lend it out. But photocopying it was not available until recently and then it is a long and relatively expensive task to make a duplicate copy of a book using a photo copier. With a computer file, making a copy is in fact the default behaviour. So now not only are books or other works portable as happened witht the printing revolution, but making copies is now extremely easy and can be done at basically no cost.

  2. Nicholas Walmsley

    How about the human race copyright things like language, or wheels, and make every company who wants to use such items pay a royalty to a global public education fund. 90% of invention is discovering the next logical step along a path that was worn by thousands of others before you. To claim ownership to the latest manifestation of human development is both selfish and arrogant. As Mick Jagger said, musicians were not paid for their music until about 1960. The whole copyright thing has turned into a rort.

    1. Nicholas – good point. I can see both sides. As a creator of material one needs to eat; but there is little truly independent creation. We all build on the creativeness and creations of others. The one that really annoys me is allowing companies to patent genes – that just seems plain wrong.

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