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Intellectual Property

Thundery wintry showers


My latest word on intellectual property is: we need the masses to start seeing past the premise that "copying is theft". Theft is a relatively black and white issue- barring exceptional circumstances it is wrong to take physical property away from people, and in a large majority of cases, a theft from a retail outlet equals a lost sale. The popular argument, therefore, is that since "copying is theft", "every copy made is a lost sale", and therefore that copying should be kept to the absolute minimum just like theft is.

But copying is actually quite different, and its effects on sales can go either way- you have to weigh up the lost sales from people receiving clones of things [i]that they would otherwise have paid money for[/i] (this last bit is important) vs. the extra sales that result from the increased product exposure/brand awareness. Too much copying and the losses probably outweigh the gains, vice versa for small amounts of copying, and we also need to bear in mind that too much IP risks stifling the advance of information and technology, giving consumers poor value for money, and giving too much power to a small minority of powerful companies. The current trends in IP are, frankly, quite worrying, and heading strongly for this latter scenario. The stifling of debate on the issue is also a worry- increasingly if you argue against tightening IP laws you get roasted alive for "condoning theft".

This consideration is why I take the stance that "casual copying", which is mostly moderate, is probably not the threat to the industries that it's made out to be, whereas the en-masse stuff is a real threat. The industries of course focus on the former because it is easier to police with DRM, and they assume that every copy is a lost sale... but they are wrong. Indeed I doubt that "casual copying" (dating from back in the days of the cassette recorder) should ever have been made illegal.

That's not to say that I think all IP infringements are overstated in terms of their severity. The hacking into and leaking of unreleased stuff, for example, is not just an infringement of IP but also infringes upon privacy and security, often alongside many other things, and so morally speaking it is usually very serious.

An interesting case study is "Steam", which I've been using quite a lot recently. I think its online support, and requiring log-in access for it, is a very good way forward, as it creates a big difference between a copy and the original, as is offering digital distribution as an alternative to retail. But the online activation DRM aspect of it is an unnecessary evil, giving the IP owner a huge amount of control over the end user, making software functionality dependent on external servers, and if they got rid of it, any lost sales due to increased "casual copying" would probably be at least offset by extra sales from people who got exposure to the products and went on to buy them in order to get easier access to the support on Steam. Thus, I reckon that Steam without the DRM would most likely give a "win-win" type of balance between content creators and end users.


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