Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Copyright panics and name-calling

William Patry has a new book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which is driving me crazy. I disagree with so much of it (only one chapter in so far), I barely know where to start.

Patry is a recognized copyright expert, having published an apparently well-regarded multi-volume reference work on the subject. He drafted copyright laws while working in the US House of Representatives, and he's now Google's chief copyright expert.

He begins the book having already decided that the "copyright industries" (movie studios, record labels, book publishers, etc) are stupid, badly-managed, and don't deserve to survive.

He spends several pages discussing the "framing" of arguments, and how word choices affect the way people respond to arguments. He despises the use of terms like "pirate" or "theft" when talking about online file-sharing, as he believes that the use of such terms causes people to jump to the wrong conclusions.

Perhaps. But...

In the course of his first chapter, he likens the "copyright industries" to the old Soviet Politburo. And he compares the wisdom and actions of the "copyright industries" to Mao's ill-fated Cultural Revolution.

So it seems we should have no compunction about using the terms "pirate" and "theft".

Patry also spends several pages quoting Theodore Levitt's classic "Marketing Myopia" article, and arguing the stupidity of "push" marketing these days, when he says the internet has changed everything, and anyone with any brains gives consumers exactly what they want via "pull" marketing.

He says consumers want to download single tracks, while the record labels offered only albums on CDs, so it was only right and fair that consumers took matters into their own hands.

Let's see just what this means...

Say I want to buy just a single egg for a recipe, and the grocery wants me to buy a dozen. Should I feel justified in stealing the egg?

I know, some readers will object that the egg is a physical object, with inventory value, and that my theft would deprive the store of that value.

Well then, what about this one? I want a nice crisp hundred-dollar bill, but the bank won't give me one. Instead of stealing one, I could borrow a hundred from a friend, and make a copy at my own expense. Would that be OK? Like a consumer copying music files? It's not as though a single hundred would affect the economy, right?

Isn't theft still theft?

If I want to buy a single short story, but the bookstore has only a single-volume collection on the shelf, can I demand that they tear out and sell me just the one story that I want?

Of course not.

Just because the internet makes it possible to do something does not mean that it is right to do so.

Just because Patry (and many many others, of course) think that the record labels are badly managed by stupid people, to the point that Patry seems to think said companies should not even exist, does not make it right for a consumer to take matters into her own hands.

I'm curious to see if later chapters of Patry's book show clearer thinking.