Last week, I received a call from Erin Anderssen, a writer and reporter from the Globe and Mail, Canada's great national newspaper. She was directed to me by a colleague of mine who suggested that I might just be the sort of person she wanted to talk to. Specifically, she wanted tech-savvy parents so she could find out how they explain copyright violations to their children.
My children are a little young yet (not quite 3 and not quite 6) so that discussion is a few years away. Nevertheless, as those of you who know me will not find surprising, I did have some opinions on the subject. So for the next 20 or 30 minutes, we talked about this very issue. I probably asked Erin more questions than she asked me because I'm like that. If you ask for my opinion, I'm infinitely curious as to what your opinion on the same matter might be. I may not agree with you, but I'm still curious. So we talked . . . and on Sunday, the article was published. under the title, "Illegal downloading: How do you explain it to the kids?"
I am sure you can appreciate that what you get from the Globe and Mail article is a handful of words from yours truly, hardly enough to make any sense of what I might actually believe when it comes to this subject. Other than, perhaps, my belief that the issue is far from cut and dry.
During the interview, I was rather adamant that the angle she should take on the story was the complexity and greyness of the whole question. What do you tell your kids about copyright and piracy?
Answer: You don't tell them anything. You start a dialog and prepare for a discussion that will not be over in a few minutes or even a few hours. The issue of copyright, piracy, fair use, sharing, selling, downloading, and otherwise obtaining and/or redistributing any type of copyrighted content is a murky question. And like any dark murky pool, it's best to investigate it thoroughly before you jump in. The bottom may be a lot further than you think. And there may be weeds in which you can get tangled, weeds that will pull you under where the darkness is all consuming.
Drama aside, what I told the Globe was this: anyone who thinks you can just tell your kids that copyright infringement is a crime and that you just shouldn't do it is at best naive and at worst more than a little dishonest. It's never that simple and those who tell you it's black and white are more than a little dishonest as well. Let me play the game I played with Ms. Anderssen, the reporter from the Globe and Mail. I call this the scenario game.
Scenario one: Making copies of a book and redistributing them is bad. So is going into the store and stealing a copy. Going the library and borrowing a book, reading it, and returning it is okay. Is it okay to let someone else read that book before you return it? Is it okay to buy a book, read it, and share it with your spouse (one purchase, two readers?) What is you really like this book and over the course of a year or two, you share it with 50 of your friends. Is that okay or are you now breaking some kind of law? What if someone gives me a book, read it, then later sell it at a garage sale and the person who buys it then lends it out to another 50 people. One purchase has now (in theory) deprived the author (or more likely, the publishing company) of a hundred sales. And I made 10 cents at the garage sale, on a book I didn't buy.
Here's a corollary to scenario one. What if your book is an e-book?
Scenario two: Once upon a time, those of us who can still remember those days, used to make cassette recordings of our favorite songs on the radio. We'd them listen to those songs over and over. Did we all break the law? Then, we might take those songs and create a mix tape that we then shared with a handful of friends? Were we criminals? Should the law come down and investigate every person over the age of 35 to see if they ever created a mix tape? If it was okay to record from the radio onto tape, is it then okay to record the radio songs directly to your PC? What if you make a 'mix tape' of those songs (put them on your iPod or similar device)? Is that illegal? What should the penalty be for someone who records stuff from the radio to listen to on their iPod?
Scenario three: What if you buy a CD (you pay for it from a legitimate store) and you 'rip' those songs to some audio format to play on your portable music device. Have you broken the law? Remember the "Rip. Mix. Burn." ads from Apple? Now you decide that you really like this band and you want all your friends to hear it, so you lend them your CD with the understanding that they will give it back. They listen to your CD; any laws broken here? What if they make a copy before returning your CD? They could have done that with the mix tape you shared with them way back in the day. But this is the digital age.
Scenario four: You watch a show on television. It's all nice and legal; after all, you are a cable subscriber and pay ridiculously high fees to your cable company for this privilege. You record a show on videotape (VHS) to watch later. Once you watch it, you decide you really like the show, so you keep the taped copy to watch again in the future. What laws have you broken? Any? Now, let's pretend that you could record that show to a PVR (which you also rent from your cable company). From that PVR, there's an option to record that show to videotape — the cable company gives you that right and provides you with the tools. So it must be okay, right? What if you make a digital copy of that show instead of using videotape? Is is still okay? What if you then store that show on your local network storage or media center to view at will and whenever you want. Have you crossed a line because you aren't using videotape? Let's say you decide to make copies of the cartoons on TV onto DVD so your kids can watch them later?
Scenario five: You buy DVDs for your kids, videos that make you sit through long introductions and previews before letting your kids watch anything. You hate the time it takes to just put on a 20 minute cartoon for your kids, so you 'rip' that video to disk and repackage it minus those annoying introductory menus, warnings, and previews. How illegal is that? After all, you paid for it. You used to do a similar things with the albums you bought to have just the songs you wanted and not a bunch of other things on the album you weren't as keen on (remember mix tapes).
Scenario six: Your kids love a particular TV show. You search YouTube and find that someone has uploaded a dozen episodes of said cartoons. Should you let your kids watch them on YouTube? They may be violating copyright. Furthermore, by watching the cartoon, you are actually 'downloading' the show as you watch it. You can even save a local copy that survives your moving on to the next cartoon. Who polices YouTube? Should we all boycott it in the interest of making sure that copyright is never, ever violated?
Scenario seven: You buy a DVD, or an album. You could rip it to store a copy (whether that's legal or not) but you also know you could download a copy that someone else has ripped and save yourself a lot of time. Remember, you own that DVD or CD because you went to the store and bought it, legally. You just want it in a different format and downloading it is easy and convenient.
Scenario eight: You subscribe to your local cable. You also subscribe to the movie channels and rent their PVR. You set the PVR to record your favorite show, but the unit cuts off the final 5 minutes of the show, and in fact does this, not every time, but routinely. On those occasions, you go to your PC and download that episode from a TV torrents site. Or you miss the first few minutes, so you download a copy to catch up. Remember that you subscribe to and pay for all the services that (should) make this show available to you.
Scenario nine: YouTube again. You find that your favorite recording artist's recording company makes a video of their latest video available on YouTube, so it's legit for you to watch it. But you really like this song and you want to listen to it on your portable music player. So you download the song, just the audio, from YouTube, and you transfer it to your device. Maybe you'll even include that in a 'mix tape' (or the modern equivalent thereof). At what point did you start breaking the law?
I could go on but I'll stop here. At no point, in any of these scenarios, do you create copies for the purpose of redistributing them or with any intention of making a profit. Is every scenario equally bad? Equally illegal? What should the punishment be?
The point I am trying to make is that the issue is complex, and almost everyone sees a fuzzy line somewhere between being a law-abiding citizen who respects and supports content creators, and the other side of the coin where you are clearly violating some kind of law. That line is not only fuzzy, but in motion. It's location is determined by intent as well as the nature of the media; is it a book, a newspaper, a magazine, a song, an album or CD, a DVD . . . ?
Where do I draw the line?
As a content creator, I believe that those people who create our literature, our music, and our art, should be compensated according to their wishes. That said, if I own a copy of a movie or a song, I don't have any issue with making alternate copies for myself — I won't share them, but I will repackage them to suit my needs and desires. And, if a show plays on television through a service I pay for and, for some reason I can not see it (or see the whole thing), I have to moral issue with finding a copy to watch. I'm already paying for the content — I've already lived up to my end of the bargain. And yes, I'm willing to lend out my books. Just bring them back after you're done.
Somewhere, there has to be a balance between copyright sanity, copywrong madness, and some kind of fair use. It's not black and white. Your computer's 32 bit color palette might be a better starting point.
Where do you draw the line?