16 November 2005

Copyright trespass suits

The BPI has brought more civil actions against uploaders of music to peer-to-peer networks in Britain.

Once again, this is a plea not to complain. As I said last time, the practical intellectual property debate is over whether the scope of copyright and patent law should be increased in the light of new technologies. The Right Answer is that it should not. It might be that without such expansion of copyright, certain business models will cease to be sustainable on a large scale. Whether that is the case, and whether different business models can flourish, remain to be seen.

As these matters unfold, copyright owners will attempt to apply existing laws in defense of existing business models. To the extent that this attempt succeeds, there will be less reason to extend those laws, and, most importantly, less justification for restricting the manufacture, sale and use of ordinary general-purpose tools that can be used for copying, modifying and distributing digital information. If widespread unauthorised distribution of copyrighted material can be substantially prevented by bringing civil suits against the people who do it, then the copyright owners' problems are solved with the least impact on everyone else.

If these legal actions are not effective in protecting the copyright owners' business models, then the real battle will follow. Showing respect for the law as it stands, and for the copyright owners' attempts to employ it, is a solid foundation from which one can make principled objections to copyright expansion. "I want free stuff" is not.

Does information want to be free? If I say so, I mean that restricting copying and distribution of digital data is likely to be very difficult. It means that copying is likely to continue despite these suits. It does not, by itself, make a moral argument. You could say, in the same way, that petrol wants to be on fire, but it's not an excuse to get the matches out.

Beyond what I called the "practical intellectual property debate", there is questioning over whether copyrights and patents are a good thing at all, and whether their scope should be reduced. Some good arguments have been made, but they don't really amount to a criticism of the BPI for seeking to protect the legal rights they hold, and have traditionally held. If their program of protecting their business model is entirely unsuccessful, that might strengthen the argument for changing the legal status of information entirely, at the same time as it strengthens the arguments for creating new IP law powers. I think it's an entirely separate argument.

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