The Great Copy Protection Debate

Like it or not, the great copy protection debate is sucking education into it’s vast void of murky confusion. Fair Use law or suggestions or whatever they are supposed to be called in education have been poorly defined and confusingly tricky for decades. Now we get the pleasure of murking it up even more with record companies and television giants and all kinds of other people who are trying to protect their money above all things jumping in to the fray.

The New York Times is publishing a series of articles that looks at this issue (more from a legal issue than an educational issue, but still with major educational implications). Both sides of the debate are represented by a fairly balanced individual. I guess you could see the two sides as being the ones that want restrictions or locks places on digital media (books, music, movies, video, etc), and those that want them removed totally. The debate can be found at this link.

The general counsel of NBC represents, well, I bet you can pick which side they represent (pro-lock), and a Columbia Law professor represents the other (anti-lock). Now, I have to say – I agree that you shouldn’t steal stuff that you don’t have the legal right to own. But I have to say that the non-protection lock down side makes much better points in round one.

The problem that I have with the pro-lock NBC side is that I am American. In America, we believe that you are innocent until proven guilty. The pro-lock side seems to believe that we are guilty until proven innocent. They rely on the thought that the speed of transmission of files means that they have to clamp down as a “speed bump” to discourage honest people from becoming dishonest. Technically, though, in an “innocent-until-proven-guilty” society, you would have to go after the people that downloaded the files, and then prove that they don’t have the right to own a copy of the file. Anything that goes beyond that (including prosecuting those that offer the files for download) steps into a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” mindset. I can a set a CD out on the sidewalk for any one to see, but no crime is committed until some one walks along and steals it. You can’t give up going after individual down loaders just because it gets hard.

Of course, that last sentence or two kind of uses a bit of logic that the pro-lock side uses. But not to the same effect. They address the fact that every lock can be picked: “Despite the existence of lock picks, identity thieves, and hackers, cars and homes still have locks, e-mail accounts have passwords, and computers have firewalls.” The only problem with that is, these locks have proven effective. A car lock has proven to cut down on your chances of being broken in to by a large percentage. Digital locks seem to have about a zero percent success rate so far. And breaking in to a locked car causes damage to the car – which also doesn’t happen when cracking a locked file. Stop comparing apples to oranges, please.

And, sorry pro-lockers – the technology just isn’t there to prove very good locks. No matter how much you try to guilt geeks in to admitting that they are, the geeks won’t lie. The technology just isn’t there yet. MySpace and Soapbox filters seem to have prevented much more legal blocking that illegal blocking.

My big question – how do you tell if someone has the rights to upload their own content? Won’t that become a first come, first serve basis deal? If I make an independent film, but a competitor steals it from me, they can jump online and claim that they have the digital rights to it. I can sue in court and win it back, but the protected files in his name are already out there and will cause mass confusion and headaches for me when I start to try and get my stuff back out there the right way.

I believe that we will find a way to protect stuff better, and I think that it is a great idea to search for something like that. But I also believe in creating better business models that don’t require the sale of physical products or even the transfer of files. The entertainment industry is just trying to keep an ancient business model alive – one that most consumers never liked in the first place. Let’s face it – who really liked buying a whole album just to find out that the song on the radio was the only good song on the whole disc? Who really loved building up a tape collection only to have tapes go obsolete – forcing you to re-buy all of your albums on CD? Who jumped for joy at the fact that tapes, records, VHS tapes, soft cover books, and CDs wear out and break easily, forcing you to buy an entire new album at full price just to fix that.

I would bet that a true comprehensive study of the loss in revenues for companies would show that they lost money most from people that stopped re-buying broken stuff, or stopped wasting money on an album full of filler, or stopped upgrading formats every few years. Every person that I have ever know to download music still spent the same amount of money on CDs that they did before they could download. Personally, I stopped buying new CDs or DVDs once I discovered I could wait a few months to buy them used on Ebay or Amazon for $3-4. You never see companies talking about that.

The real problem with digital files is that they kill all of these ways that companies had of raking us for extra money. Instead of buying a whole album of fluff to get the one song that they actually spent money on, you can just buy and download that one good song. Digital files never scratch as CDs and DVDs do (but they can be erased) – so the companies lose a sizable replacement income on them. And, since they are digital, they will easily convert into new future formats with no or very low cost to the consumer. Upgrade income is also a sizable amount of the income for many companies.

I just wish that movie companies would see the massive amount of extra income they are missing out on by not giving away movies to teachers. When I taught Junior High Science, I would mention scenes from the movie Twister to my students when studying weather. So many students would proclaim – every class period – “I love that old movie! When Mr. So-and-So showed that in 5th Grade, I made my parents go out and buy a copy!” But, sadly, Mr. So-and-So probably got sued for showing it in class. Can’t see the forest for the trees and all….

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