Copyrights and wrongs

My interest, nay passion for copyright is one of my guilty pleasures and was piqued after being ripped off by a record company as a teenage band member, which in turn compelled me to study Intellectual Property rights at university.

Copyright is a slippery beast to define. Essentially, in the UK and most of Europe, it is the ‘right’ given to the creator of a ‘work’, be it a piece of music, a book, a picture or any expressible form of an idea that shows substantive creative endeavour. The right to copy (hence copyright) allows the creator to make copies to do with as they please, and prevents other from doing so. The copyright can also be transferred or sold to another party. Not too interesting so far.

But my prepossession is with how the law interprets this reasonably straightforward concept, and how dynamic technological advances and consumer attitudes shape the way legislation is enforced.

Copyright infringement usually takes the form of making illegal copies of a work, and the scale of such copying has historically been limited by the technology used to make the copies. The record companies would have had us believe that “Home Taping is Killing Music” in the 80s, but making a copy of an LP onto a blank tape for the car stereo was unlikely to break EMI’s bank or have the police at your door.

But with the digital revolution, where music, films, books, pictures and many other media were made available as replicable digital files, the copyright cat was let out of the bag. It is relatively straightforward to make an exact copy of a digital file and, with the aid of the Internet, distribute it far and wide without the consent of the copyright holder.

Those copyright holders who feel digitally hard done by bandy around the term ‘copyright theft’, but that phrase poses a problem. Theft is generally considered to be the act of depriving someone of their property, but is making a copy and giving that away theft? But when it comes to intellectual property rather than physical possessions, the phrase holds true.

The past few months have been a particularly dynamic time for intellectual property legislation as the thus far feeble attempts by big business and governments to put the Internet copyright cat back in the bag gain momentum. Here are but two recent examples:

In a landmark case in April the Swedish owners of The Pirate Bay, a website that allows users to search for files to download but doesn’t actually host any illegal content, were each sentenced to a year in jail and order to pay £3m in damages. However, the website itself is unaffected and carries on as normal. This ruling sets a dubious precedent as any website that has a search function that may turn up content which infringes copyright is theoretically in the same legal position, but I can’t see the owners of Google being sent down.

In May Nicolas Sarkozy’s French government, despite criticism from many European countries, pushed through lurid legislation that could force ISP (Internet Service Providers) to ban users suspected of breaching copyright laws. Alleged wrongdoers do not have to be prosecuted in the courts for their Internet connections to be terminated and there is no course for appeal, raising concerns that such a system is open to abuse and is in breach of basic democratic rights.

This is a particularly delicious irony considering that Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP Party were recently sued for copyright infringement by US group MGMT for illegally using their song “Kids” in online videos during the French election campaign. When rumbled, the UMP cheekily offered to pay the band one euro in symbolic damages, but MGMT held out and in early April, just two weeks before the controversial French ruling, the UMP begrudgingly stumped up 30,000 euros.

As the MGMT song in question goes “No time to think of consequences, take only what you need from it”

Article for Shetland Life magazine – June 2009