The Dr Johnson License….

I appreciate that this is likely to be one of those posts that will annoy some folks, but, here we go. A couple of days ago I was invited by two or three separate people to join Facebook Groups and sign petitions against the UK Digital Economy Bill. Now, I believe that we need a Digital Economy Bill like I need a hole in the head; what we actually need is less red tape and a more hands off approach from Central Government to let entrepreneurs get on with the job without requiring a chit from a bureaucrat to go to the toilet. However, I didn’t sign any petitions or join any groups; why? Because the total pre-occupation of everyone was whether it’s right to have a legal structure in which it’s possible to remove or restrict someone’s Internet access if they’re guilty of or accused of sharing copyright materials. 

There are some truly stinky parts of that bill, like there are with most pieces of New Labour legislation – but I want to look today at the filesharing issue in a wider sense.  

Let’s start with the ‘The Internet is an essential part of modern life and it shouldn’t be possible to be cut off from it.’  argument.  Bollocks. Water is essential. A roof over your head is essential. Electricity and Power are pretty important. And yet you can lose all of these by simply not paying your mortgage and utility bills, ultimately resulting in being thrown out of your house and living in a cardboard box. If that’s possible, why on Earth does anyone living in the real world and not in Second Life think that your Internet connection should have some sort of God-given right of protection? And as for essential – quite a few people manage quite happily without an Internet connection, thank you very much.

In the context of this argument, what the Internet HAS done for some people is to allow them to access, free of charge, a large tranche of media that they would have had to borrow off of their friends 20 years ago.  The actually physical act of borrowing and copying probably restricted copying in that few people had the brass neck (or stamina) to borrow 20 CDs from a friend and copy them in one sitting, for example.  The Internet is, no doubt, an essential tool for people in ripping off media.   I’ve heard most of the arguments, and there are some good points on both sides of the debate. Rather than re-hash the usual debates, here are a few observations to provide food for thought for anyone approaching this argument with an open mind.

We have a number of open licenses like Creative Commons, Open Source, etc. Why shouldn’t it be possible, therefore, for a creator of software, film or music put their material out through a proprietary license that requires payment to use the material? After all, I am restricted with what I can do within the GNU licence, for example; I have to allow other people to copy the material – it’s part of the GNU licence and I am more than happy to play along with that. If you want to have a recording of a film, then you should surely, by the same logic, abide by the license of that film. Typically pay money and don’t copy it. No one is forcing you to adopt that license – you have the choice not to buy the DVD. Similarly with Open Source; if I don’t want to pass on my source code to other people, I choose to write my own code and not use the GNU license. I can see no difference.

I’d be interested to know how many people who regularly engage in file sharing of copyrighted materials have ever created something non-trivial and original and have tried to sell it. I may be wrong but a quick poll of folks I know (outside the professional digerati) would indicate that the answer is ‘not many’. Perhaps to have experienced running a small business that deals with created works like software, or publishing a book, etc.  might change people’s attitudes a little.  Same argument as above; if I wish to place material I create in the public domain or under GNU or CC, then it’s my right to do so, and your right as consumers of media to take advantage of my action. If, on the other hand, I choose to publish under what I might start calling the Dr Johnson License (‘Only a fool writes and doesn’t get paid for it!’) then you have a right to not purchase what I produce, and I have the risk of not seeing my works go out in to the world. If you make an illegal copy of my work, then I have a right to pursue you to make you abide by my Dr Johnson License – just as the creators of software licensed under the GNU license can pursue someone who breaches that license under the law.

I’ve heard the argument of ‘try before buy’ and it’s a good one.  Which is why I have a Spotify account – legal music downloading, free of charge, some advertising, no actual physical ownership of the music outside the service even if I pay a monthly fee (which removes the ads).  I have to say that I find the latter a pain in the rear – there are some advantages to having physical ownership of the files – but then again, it’s THEIR license and I choose to go with them or not.  It’s an imperfect system.  If you download stuff on a ‘try before buying’ basis, then perhaps the case could be made to allow you to download any piece of media with a built in duration, that renders the media unplayable after, say, 30 days unless you buy it – the act of purchase then generates an unlock code.  The argument has been expressed that downloaders tend to be purchasers of music – again, I’m yet to be convinced.  Anecdotal evidence from people I know would suggest that whilst they may purchase material, the value of that that they download illegally vastly exceeds that which they purchase.

To all the freetards, can you explain why wrong for me to put the material I’ve created out in to the world, want to be paid for it, and take action when I’m not?  I am exercising my personal, creative freedom to want to be paid for my work.  If my view of my own value is wrong, don’t pay me – but don’t copy either. 

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