The Great Copyright Crackdown

2007 has been the year of the great copyright crackdown. While copyright has been part of the law for hundreds of years, protecting intellectual property so that those who create it are justly compensated is now even more important in an information economy, even as the prevalence of digital media makes it easier to violate copyright laws.

Copyright is not an intuitive concept. I believe that humans are not naturally wired to understand intellectual property — after all, our ancestors made their living by hunting mammoths with sticks. So if someone asks you to photocopy a book, you don’t say no because you viscerally understand copyright. The real reason you don’t copy a book is because it’s a hassle and it would just be cheaper and easier for the other person to purchase his own copy.

However digital media is trivial to copy, so the hassle factor is removed. Moreover, the legal options for things like getting music are clunky, inefficient, and often offer suboptimal functionality. In contrast, many “pirate” distribution methods are just plain more convenient then official distribution channels. It is as if you were forced by law to go to a dealer and buy a crappy old rusty car, where just down the street there’s a lot of unguarded shiny new Mercedes with the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition. If you took one of those, it would be stealing … but only one in every thousand people get caught. It’s a huge temptation, because the incentives are all wrong. And if you don’t happen to have an iPod, or subscribe to iTunes, this is exactly the position you’re in.

Content owners, particularly the Recording Industry Association of America, have become more aggressive in enforcing the copyrights of their members. Instead of fixing the incentives by making the legal options more appealing, they’re trying to change behavior by making it more likely that you get caught. At this point everyone has heard about “takedown” notices and subpoenas. However it doesn’t stop there. Several companies have gone into the business of developing products to technologically enforce copyright at the network level by attempting to detect the presence of peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies. They, along with some in the content industry, have been lobbying Congress to mandate some form of technological control to stop piracy.

Unfortunately, none of these technologies really work particularly well. Most of them stop all peer-to-peer file-sharing, including file-sharing that is completely legitimate. These products also can act as network bottlenecks, having a performance impact on all network traffic. So where should MIT and its students stand in this battle?

First, we can say to the music industry, “You have to straighten the incentives,” but for now, they can say, “We have the law on our side.” Maybe they should change, but they’re not obligated to. Meanwhile, there is no real justification for illegal behavior. Students sometimes say, “I’m going to violate the law because I think the law is wrong,” but that’s not a valid decision. Civil disobedience may be appropriate to try to remedy a real injustice, but then you have to stand up and be prepared to pay the price. MIT won’t stand with you in this case, and I don’t think MIT should. The way MIT should and can effect change is through legal means.

As we go into 2008 we can expect to see more positioning as the various interests face off against each other. But for now, a word of advice. Sharing music and video may seem a quick and easy thing to do, but if the work is copyrighted, it is also infringing behavior that can cost you serious money. And the likelihood that you’re going to get caught is going up. So don’t do it!

Jeffrey I. Schiller ’79 is the MIT network manager for Information Services and Technology.