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Media Piracy and Law Enforcement

Aug 17, 2007
Once upon a time, music played for free on the radio. And you could record a cassette if you wanted to, and you could listen to it as many times as you wanted to, and nobody thought you were a pirate if you shared it with your friends. In fact, this was seen as a way for new bands to break into the market; quite frequently receiving a mix tape would be motivation to buy the album of the band whose song was included.

What little concern there was over music piracy was restricted to "bootleg" tapes made at concerts. Even one of the most outspokenly liberal musicians ever, Frank Zappa, vented in vain at bootleg tapes of his music. He went so far as to include the tape of an interview expressing his anger with this practice at the beginning of his "As An Am" album, part of his "Beat the Boots" project. But even at its most vampiric, the bootleg recording industry was hardly able to suck off more than a single-digit percentage of profits.

But then the Internet happened. And suddenly, through it, the sharing of a home-made recording suddenly became something you could provide to thousands of people instead of one or two friends. Where even the recording of several purchased CDs onto cassette tape was only moderately a big deal before, now it is a major industry.

The media piracy issue is one of the most vitriolic hot-button issues in today's Internet culture. The major factors being:

* The RIAA. The Recording Industry Association of America may live on in history as being one of the most ineffective measures of copyright protection the world has ever seen. Its methods have been draconian, never once catching a pirate, but relentlessly pursuing everyone from soccer moms to grandmothers to even dead people with a lawsuit for receiving a pirated tune, which in and of itself is not even a crime. Funded by the not-particularly successful record labels and armed with a battalion of lawyers, the RIAA's practices have so far been futile at stopping piracy and harassing of legitamate users.

* Sony - became the laughing stock of 2006 with the Rootkit Fiasco. Sony included a malicious program on several music CDs, which installed a computer program called a "rootkit" on any computer you stuck them into, for the purposes of preventing unauthorized copying. The attempt backfired two ways: not only did it do nothing to prevent copying, but it crippled the software on the computer by compromising its security layer; any hacker looking to break into a computer need only look for the rootkit and they were in! Sony faced consumer lawsuits for this attempt and had to distribute an uninstaller for the rootkit, which itself was another botch in that it introduced more security holes into the system after patching its own rootkit. Sony lost millions of customers with this fiasco, many of whom swore publicly that they would never trust Sony again.

* The DMCA. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is the United States copyright law which both criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services that are used to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works and criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, even when there is no infringement of copyright itself. This law has since endured no end to controversy, and is in the process of being reformed. The DMCA is said to be anti-competitive; because it gives copyright holders and the technology companies (including the ones convicted of monopolistic practices under anti-trust laws) that distribute their content the legal power to create closed technology platforms and exclude competitors from inter-operating with them. Once again, DRM technologies are clumsy and ineffective; they inconvenience legitimate users but do nothing to stop pirates.

The whole problem with copyright protection stems from the haziness of defining at what point someone has broken the law. Say I bought an album on tape cassette, brought it home, and played it on my stereo so that my whole family can hear it. I'm not a pirate yet. I upgraded my stereo to a new model and copied that album to a compact disk so that my new stereo can play it. Obviously, I haven't stolen anything here, but now I might be breaking a law intended to stop me from copying it for piracy purposes. If I play it so my whole family can hear it in the living room, that should be no different from if I made a separate CD copy for each member of my family so they can all listen to it in their bedrooms with their headphones on. Am I a pirate now?

The further problem is that digital protections against copyright are platform and player-specific. There has been a whole quagmire of different devices such as the Apple iPod, Microsoft Zune, handheld game consoles, cell phones, and other devices capable of recording, storing, and playing back music. These features are sold to us as benefits of the device, and yet when we get them home we find that we have to pay for the song some six times to be able to listen to it on each device - if indeed (as is seldom the case) the song has even been ported to that platform! Subscribing to a DRM-protected device further restricts the user's freedom to switch to a different device - you're locked in, and would be breaking the law if you moved the media from one device to another - even if you, yourself, wrote and recorded that song at home!

The turmoil over media piracy isn't likely to end any time soon. Fortunately, the legal system has so far left the enforcement of copyright concerns to private industry, which isn't doing such a hot job of enforcing copyright anyway. Consider that any country in the world can host any media pirate and in fact several countries do just that, with no laws to stop them. Pirated media is very big business in some countries, not because they want to steal, but simply because they want that media to play on their own independently produced digital devices. Remember when you could just buy a record and drop it on any record player and it would just play?
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