Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Intellectual Tug-O-War

Why is it that almost all of the online debate about intellectual property is between extremists? On the one hand we have Richard Stallman, Cory Doctorow and piracy apologists. On the other hand we have the RIAA, MPAA and Microsoft/Apple astroturfers. I tend to disagree with both of these groups because both of them go too far -- just in opposite directions.

The most recent example of this is the Analysis of Microsoft's Suicide Note page. It's on, so of course it's no surprise that most of the comments are from free-software groupies. The only exceptions are a few posts from "sreiser". I actually agree with some of his points, but I strongly disagree with:7

by affording basic intellectual property protection within the operating system, they [Microsoft] are doing great service towards cultivating a more responsible public

The responses are, of course, equally extreme, but diametrically opposite. For example:

...private piracy, on the other hand, does not cause a real harm to the manufacturer, due to its nature. By private piracy I refer to those people who download a certain product from Internet or otherwise make unauthorized copies of it only for self use. This is, of course, still illegal (although there are legal holes in many countries than enable it), but even so it requires a closer look: most of 'private pirates' (most probably more that 99%) copy the product just because they cannot afford buying it. So, if you disable such user from doing that, this won't make him/her to buy that product, since cannot afford it. Instead that user won't use the product at all.

I don't agree with either of these quoted bits. On the one hand, if I'm buying an operating system, that operating system should serve me, not the content providers. If there was somehow some sort of DRM that didn't cause any harm, then I'd be okay with it, but not causing any harm means:

  • It shouldn't make my machine slower.
  • It shouldn't make my machine run hotter.
  • It shouldn't increase the cost of the operating system or computer.
  • It shouldn't increase the liklihood of bugs.
  • It shouldn't make any legitimate tasks that I might want to perform more difficult. This includes fair-use tasks like backing up my media, moving it between my machines, burning it to a CD so I can listen to it in my car, etc.
Since no such DRM exists (or can exist, given the fuzziness of what is fair use) it's better to do without.

On the other hand, the "private piracy doen't hurt anyone" argument simply doesn't hold water. There generally isn't a black and white distinction between what one can afford and what one cannot. Can the typical teenager afford to buy thousands of CDs? Probably not. Can they afford to buy tens or even hundreds of CDs? For most American teenagers the answer is probably yes. So is it okay for someone to buy as many CDs as they can afford, and then to pirate the rest of their music?

Even if you did consider such an absurd situation to be morally justified, I argue that it would rarely happen. Once someone accepts piracy as a legitimate option they'll pirate whenever the percieved benefit minus cost outweighs that of purchasing. Given that many people's wants expand to exceed their means, and that physical goods are notoriously hard to pirate, people who have taken this path will not purchase media even if they can afford it. Worse, this sort of behavior can spread to those well outside of the "can't afford it" group because it lowers the social stigma of pirating, while at the same time decreasing the percieved value of the purchased product.

One of the craziest things I've experienced when trying to talk with these extremeists is that they generally see me as being on the opposite side of the spectrum from them. The anti-copyright crowd, upon hearing that I think content creators should be able to use copyright in order to get compensation for their work will invariably accuse me of being against open source/"free" software. I actually like open source (I'm typing this on my Ubuntu box) and I've even contributed to some projects. I think of "open source" as a feature though, not a moral imperative. While I prefer my software to be open source, I don't consider the developers of non-open-source software to be infidels.

Likewise, members of the the pro-DRM camp, upon hearing that I dislike DRM, will generally accuse me of being a software pirate. I just don't want fair use to be harmed. The "don't even talk about circumvention" bits in the DMCA are also frighteningly similar to thoughtcrime.

Am I really the only one here in the middle? In the end, I'm inclined to side with the "information wants to be free" crowd, but mostly because they seem to be on the losing side of the tug-of-war.

posted Wednesday, January 10, 2007 (7 comments)