Modern Day Protectionism How copyright has turned the record labels, software writers and film studios against their own customers

The consumer entertainment industry lobbyists lie. They lie over, and over, and over. They lie to the media, they lie to the politicians, they lie to you. The lies in question are rarely looked upon critically by the media or the politicians, only by grassroots opposition. The main lies involved are all variations on the same theme; copying equals theft. That is to say, if you copy a piece of data – be it a software program, a song, a movie, a book, that makes you a thief. You’re depriving the producer of that work of money which they supposedly have a right to.

I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t “educated” well enough in government schools, but no matter how I twist and turn my logic, I still fail to see how this even remotely makes sense. If I walk into a store and leave with a jacket for which I have not paid then I have deprived the store’s owner of his or her justly acquired, tangible property. They have one less jacket. They are directly harmed by my action.

If a friend, however, lends me a music CD and if I then make a copy, so that I can listen to the music without having to borrow the disc again in the future, nobody is harmed. It is possible that I could, for example, have made an agreement or contract with him when I borrowed the disc stating that I cannot copy it. If I were to do it anyway, I’d be in violation of a private agreement. If not, who is harmed by my act of duplication? I used my own tangible property (CD drive, computer, and hard drive or blank CD) to fashion a duplicate of the data on the CD. The original CD is still my friend’s property. I return it to him, and while he is no better or worse off than he was before, I am now better off. The imprint of the music on my tangible property makes that property marginally worth more to me, as I can enjoy its use to a greater extent than previously.

Was anyone harmed at any point here?

Yes – if you choose to believe the consumer entertainment industry. They claim there was a third party here that was being harmed. Can you see the third party? There was me, and there was my friend. There was my property and that of my friend. I don’t see the third party anywhere in that process. I suppose my friend could have been in a contract with the person or organization he purchased the CD from not to copy it, but I wouldn’t have been bound by that contract. Either way, I did nothing wrong.

So who is this mysterious third party? At which point does he appear, and how is he harmed?

Well, let me explain. You see, there’s this notion advocated by some – primarily media lobbyists, objectivists and government officials – of an intellectual property (IP). What is an intellectual property, you may ask? Well, the gist of it is that if you do anything that requires a bit of work with the big, roundish object mounted on top of your neck, you have a time-limited monopoly on that action if you’re the first person to do it.

Not understandable? Let me enlighten you, dear reader, with some examples.

None of the above.

In fact, not only are they unwilling to innovate, they have gone to the extreme of starting to sue their own potential and real customers – with the number of lawsuits now over being over 20,000. I’m not a business major, but I’m pretty damn sure that’s not a good way to gain favour with your customers. In their view, every copy made is a lost sale; each person who makes a copy – and a download from a file-sharing network is a copy – must equal a lost sale. Because I’m sure you’ve all gone and bought every single song or movie you’ve heard or seen at a friend’s place, on the radio, on TV, and so on. Let’s cut the crap, okay?

There are many theories on why the entertainment industries’ profits are going down the drain. My own personal favourites are as follows:

  1. Lack of innovation and fear of technology. The industries have always been afraid of new technology. The radio, the player-piano, the phonograph, the VCR, cassette tapes etc. were seen as threats by the industry, which responded by attempting to restrict sales and ownership. They’re notoriously skeptical towards new technology, and will bend over backwards to prevent it from becoming commonplace. They’re unwilling to experiment and find new ways to fulfill customer demand. Apple practically had to force iTunes onto the market, the record labels weren’t willing to go along with it at first. They weren’t willing to only sell individual songs, they wanted whole albums sold.
  2. One glaring example of the entertainment industries’ fear of technology was ex-MPAA president Jack Valenti’s 1982 statement to a U.S. Congressional panel:

    “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

    As we all know, VCRs went on to become one of the biggest profit sources for Hollywood in history, and now we have DVDs and Blu-Ray discs filling the VCR’s role.

  3. Appealing to the lowest common denominator. This applies both to movies and music, but in my opinion, especially music. With their tight working relationship with radio and MTV-like TV channels, the IFPI members of the music industry have, until the last decade, had a virtual choke hold on customers. The radio and TV was the way new music was promoted and exposed to the customer. This is why a good portion of the popular music available today (which, of course, is a subjective opinion – but one many people would echo) is of dubious quality. Need I mention anything more than Britney Spears? The control they once had is now eroding. This is, I believe, one of the core reasons behind their stubborn unwillingness to embrace new technology, and especially the Internet: they give consumers more choice.
  4. Movies and news media, of course, aren’t exempt. Every year, Hollywood cranks out hundreds of movies, on which only a handful are truly worth spending one’s finite time. Who truly needs to see movies like Brüno? I mean, okay, it’s mildly humorous. But it’s far from intelligent.

    Here is an article by Michael Crichton discussing the quality of the media, with emphasis on news media in particular. While that isn’t directly what this article is discussing, its observations can be applied to that of the entertainment media as well.

  5. Treating the customer like a criminal. You walk into a cinema, buy a ticket, sit down and wait for the movie to start. Then you see this.
  6. Doesn’t give you the impression that they like or trust their customers a whole lot, does it?

    The results of using DRM have been mainly preventing non-tech-savvy users from making backups of their own discs (as tech-savvy users can figure out ways to copy them anyway) and to introduce unnecessary inconvenience to the customer. Here are a few examples.

  7. The entertainment industries’ crusade against file sharing. A truly stillborn, yet relentlessly continued policy. This harks back to #1 & #3, but deserves a mention of its own. File sharing, which is to say, people sharing media content in the form of digital files such as MP3s, has had a history dating back to the beginning of the digital computer age, but in its current, Internet based incarnation dates back only a decade. It started with Shawn Fanning releasing Napster in 1999. There were a few file-sharing networks prior to Napster, such as HotLine and Audiogalaxy, but Napster is the first one that got real traction. Millions of users copying music files from each other via the Internet. The music industry freaked.

That treaty, if passed, would mark the death of the Internet as we know it; pretty much every single website and service with user-uploaded content would be forced out of business by the sheer cost of compliance. Bye-bye YouTube, Flickr, Google Book Search, digg, Wikipedia, etc.

We can’t let this insanity go on any longer – eliminate imaginary property!

Thanks for editorial help from John T.

November 9, 2009

This article is under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Stephan Kinsella explains why.