Digital Piracy

AAAAR2D2 by Kaptain Kobold
AAAAR2D2 by Kaptain Kobold

This will probably be only tangentially related to education, but I am going to take some space here to try to sort out my own ideas about digital piracy. As an individual media consumer and very occasional creator, I have mixed feelings about copyright violation of things like books and movies.

I think the world is in a kind of Wild-West in-between stage in terms of our attitudes toward copying, and my own ideas are still changing. At various times during this evolution I’m sure that some of my views have verged on being technically illegal according to some companies’ or countries’ rules, but I don’t think I’m a particularly unethical person, which is one of this topic’s biggest paradoxes: When most people are breaking a rule most of the time, does that mean we’re all criminals, or does it mean the rule needs to be reevaluated? Anyway, here’s how I think I feel this month:

My rights

  1. I should always be able to make infinite digital copies of anything I purchase or already possess digitally, for my personal use, and ideally these copies should not be tied to one platform or application. If I buy an e-book, for example, that e-book should be in the form of a file that I can easily locate, copy, and open separate instances of whenever I want. I don’t think Kindle purchases are quite at this stage yet – I’d like to be able to feel that I could use my purchases even when not logged in or using the official Kindle application. If I found a way to “crack” something like Kindle books and use them in other applications (just hypothetically), I don’t think I would see that as wrong, even though it might technically be violating some part of the Kindle purchase agreement.
  2. In cases of loss, file corruption etc. I should be able to get a second digital copy of any work. If I buy something once and it gets erased, for example, the fact that I bought it once should allow me to acquire another copy somehow. It’s been interesting to see Apple embrace this idea in stages over the last few years – originally iTunes store purchases were one-time-only, now purchases can be re-downloaded innumerable times.
  3. If I buy a physical version of a work that also exists in digital form, for example a video game cartridge or a book, there is nothing wrong with also making or acquiring a digital copy of that item. I have, for example, purchased the game “The Secret of Monkey Island” about six times throughout the decades – on floppy disc, CD-ROM, German CD-ROM, iPhone app, iPad app, etc. I also have a digital copy of the old PC version that I think I downloaded from an “abandonware” site somewhere along the way. I think that’s OK.
  4. If I purchase something which attempts to limit my ability to copy it (through DRM that limits the number of times I can copy an album, or number of devices I can copy it to, for example), there is nothing wrong with circumventing that attempt. When I first started buying iTunes music I would regularly download the DRM-shackled version from iTunes, and then get a non-DRM version from somewhere else to actually use. Apple has, again, come around to my point of view on this, which increases my desire to use their service in the future.
  5. I have the right to preview or test out media before buying. This means – and sorry corporations – there are some circumstances in which I might possess partial or whole copies of things which I haven’t yet paid for.
  6. I have the right to create and share new works which fairly use existing works. For example, if I recorded a video of my baby dancing to some barely audible background music, I could share the video online without fear of being treated like a criminal.

My responsibilities

  1. As a consumer I have an ethical responsibility (which in this area, to me, is far more important than getting worked up about whether or not I have a *legal* responsibility, since the laws don’t fit so many situations now) to compensate content creators for everything that I consume and enjoy. If something I enjoy consuming has a price tag I should buy it, and if something I enjoy consuming was distributed for free the compensation could be in the form of recommending it to others, buying future products from those creators, advertising or mentioning the product in my own work, etc.
  2. If I become aware of a way to additionally compensate a content creator for something that I have enjoyed – for example if a recording artist splits from their record label and releases a remix version of their album independently, or if a director puts out a “special edition” of a film I love – then I have a responsibility to seriously consider those ways to additionally compensate the creator.
  3. I have a responsibility to keep my personal collections of media reasonably private. I do think there is nothing wrong in sharing in order to recommend something to friends, etc., but  at some point sharing one’s personal copies of media publicly becomes irresponsible and unethical.
  4. I have a responsibility not to use my digital collections for commercial purposes. Since individual copies of an item now no longer have any intrinsic value, this by extension means that re-selling “used” digital media which was created by others is not entirely ethical.
  5. If I create something new that incorporates copyrighted material, it should be done with appropriate intent, justification, and citation of where everything came from and who made it.

So my question to you, dear reader, is: How closely does this match your own views on the subject of digital piracy? Am I a criminal, or on the other end of the spectrum am I not being assertive enough about what I’m allowed to do? How many of these views would be healthy if students had them, and if not which ones would you object to or state differently?

As a teacher, I more or less think these rights and responsibilities all still apply to things I do in the classroom, but with the adjective “personal” replaced by “acquired by the school for shared use by a class”. Also, I suppose I’m obligated to mention that in the classroom I would definitely always strive to strictly adhere to any and all actual legal standards I knew about rather than feeling a bit more free as a personal consumer, as I felt above, to ponder my own ethical code on its own.

In any case, whatever their views, I would hope that, unlike their couch potato of a teacher, my students would always be creating far more than they consume.

One thought on “Digital Piracy

  1. I think your list of responsibilities is right on target. Unfortunately, the law (as written by old white men many years before the technologies in question existed, and now reinforced and lobbied by other old white men representing companies that are fast becoming obsolete) does not always agree.

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