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Thundery wintry showers


Firstly, a reminder of what copyrights are for: they are to give content creators some control over the use and distribution of their work, typically to protect ownership and/or financial revenues and thus give them an incentive to continue producing. There is a balancing act to strike between copyrights and "fair use", because too much copying can erode revenue margins (and in some cases produce plagiarism) while too much protectiveness over copyrights can stifle spread of information and result in consumers having to pay more for less.

Firstly, copyright infringement is not the same as theft (because the copyright owner and/or seller is not deprived of a physical unit). The reason why it's important to recognise this is that the "copying is theft" propaganda serves as a way of campaigning for ever-tightening copyright laws. Consider the following argument, which crops up regularly on gaming forums:[list]
[*][i]You think that some aspect of copyright law is weighted too far in favour of the copyright holder?[/i]
[*][i]Well, all copyright infringement is theft, and all theft is wrong, so therefore all copyright infringement is wrong.[/i]
[*][i]Thus if you maintain that belief you are condoning the theft of people's work and you should be shot.[/i]
The reason why copyright infringement is not a black-and-white issue is because of its wide-ranging definition. I'm sure most of us will agree that counterfeiting is morally wrong (where people make copies of other people's work and sell them) as is plagiarism (making copies of someone else's work and then passing them off as one's own work). Those are the two infringing activities that are the most similar to outright theft.

The illegal downloading scene is rather more controversial. In this case, the potential revenue losses due to the copying have to be offset against the potential long-term gains due to increased product, industry and brand exposure, the social benefits of being able to "share" and increased consumer welfare. The overall effects of the file-sharing scene are dubious, as while it's unlikely that a large percentage of the illicit copies translate to lost sales, even a 10% erosion of sales margins could put the smaller, more marginal companies out of business. However, the online file-sharing does have some uses that can be more beneficial than harmful, e.g. distribution of non-commercial products, products that are no longer sold, and people who download using a "try before you buy" mentality. The problems stem from those who "leak" private information as well as those who use them as a reliable means of getting commercial products for free that they would otherwise have paid for.

We then move into "casual copying"- e.g. purchasing a music CD then burning it to a couple of computers and playing it in a car's MP3 player. This form of copying has traditionally been the main target of most copy protection over the years, and in some circles is vilified/accepted as "wrong" more than the illegal downloading scene. Because such copying occurs in relative moderation, I have greater doubts that such copying actually results in lost sales. The exception is when it occurs en-masse- I think making 16 copies of a product, then heading into a school and distributing them to 16 of your friends, for instance, is a morally dubious act. There are other ways of generating the same kind of benefits, such as providing "built-in" rights (e.g. the console games that allow split-screen multiplayer, while regular sales and product "bundles", of the "5 for the price of 1 or 2" variety, have similar benefits). The UK coalition government is currently looking into ways of legalising some forms of "casual copying".

But there are areas where it begins to get silly. For instance, could you imagine a world where playing 3-player games of Scrabble was considered "piracy" unless each player had his/her own copy of Scrabble, and where playing 3 player Scrabble with one copy of the game was perceived as "stealing" the equivalent of 2 copies of Scrabble? Computer gaming has trended in that sort of direction recently. In many circumstances, singing "Happy Birthday" at a party would be considered a "public performance" and would thus infringe the copyrights of Time Warmer.

The issue also crops up with game mods. Of course, it is unethical to use other modders' assets in your own mods and pass them off as your own, thus plagiarising them. But there are more controversial ones, e.g. a recent furore over the Minecraft "Technic pack" suggests that, for instance, it is illegal to produce installers for "mod packs" to help make installing multiple mods more convenient (a modder might want his or her mod distributed exclusively through an ad-supported site to make money, or control the distribution on the basis "the law says that I can, and the law is the law"). A similar issue arises when modders refuse to allow any of their assets to be used in other projects whenever they are asked for permission- that of the modders' legal right to "sit on" their assets vs. hindering the mod community as a whole by doing so.
Then it starts to get ridiculous, e.g. if you download a mod that includes assets that are used without permission, [i]you[/i] are technically infringing copyrights (and thus, according to some, "stealing" modders' work), which strikes me as absurd (how can you ever be sure that all the assets within someone else's mod are used with permission?). A similar issue arose with the "Risen 3D" port for Doom, which temporarily became illegal as it infringed the GPL- suddenly all those who used that source port were classified as software pirates, despite having no way of knowing that it had become illegal unless they'd specifically researched it on the internet.

So no, copyright isn't a black-and-white issue.


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