A few thoughts on Intellectual Property

To be honest, I missed the Wikipedia blackout the other day, I am on holiday and given that I am 8 hours away from GMT, I missed a big bit of it. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with what they are protesting, and to be honest, if I had have been at home and able to make the necessary changes, I may have participated by blacking out this website for 24 hours too.

I don’t plan to go too much into the technical headaches that SOPA and PIPA present, since people more knowledgeable than me have already covered the nightmare it would cause; essentially destroying the already fragile security of the DNS architecture, introducing an unacceptable level of political [American] control into the governance of the internet, and bypassing the concept of due process and the right to a fair trial, to be replaced instead by the arbitrary take-down of domains at the request of content producers or anyone with enough to hire big enough lawyers, with take-downs enforced through some sort of DNS manipulation (although this bit of the SOPA and PIPA bills appears to be dead) and no right for the domain owner to request a trial. I am going to look at the issue from the perspective of content.

I am a content producer. What you are reading is content, as is the CSS that makes the page look like it does, the PHP code that brings the content to you, and the MySQL database that stores the content. All of which I designed, wrote and put a fair amount of effort into. It is also my right to sell my content or Intellectual Property. If I chose to do so, it may be because that is my livelihood, and therefore I would be less than happy if somebody chose to pirate my work instead of paying me for it.

Surely then I would be in favour of these bills? Well, not really since they would most likely harm me more than they would help me. Say for instance I release a small bit of software which begins to threaten a large company, under the proposed system, they could accuse me of copyright infringement, even if there was none, yet because I would be unable to afford to fight it, I would essentially lose my website. On the other hand I could chose to distribute my work through Peer-to-Peer file sharing networks. However this could then get my classed as a pirate and like before my website could be shut down with no way for me to appeal.

Ok, but isn’t cutting piracy a good thing? On the surface of it, yes it is. Then the people producing the content get their just reward. The problem is that this isn’t the case. I am paraphrasing it, but the definition of theft appears to be to act of permanently depriving another party of some item. So if I walk into a shop, take a chocolate bar and walk out without paying for it, then I am permanently depriving that shop from selling the chocolate bar and recouping the cost of it. Now assume that is is possible to make a copy of a chocolate bar, one that looks and tastes just as good as the original, but leaves the one in the shop untouched. Then I walk in, take a copy of the chocolate bar and walk out without paying. The shop has suffered no loss since they can still sell the chocolate bar, and since I had no intention of ever buying one, they have made no loss there either.

Now we can consider a couple of examples, the first is a relative of mine who is producing a book. The terms they have with the publisher are horribly one-sided and even if the book sells well, they only receive a fixed fee. In this case, while they may wish for the book to sell well, since it bolsters their negotiation position for the next book they produce, if the book was massively pirated then it only harms the publisher, and not the content producer, although I know that this is not always the case. The second example is a friend who is studying for his Cisco certifications. For this he has purchased some second hand Cisco hardware, some of it at considerable cost. Technically to use it he should purchase licenses for the system he is using, however this would be prohibitively expensive. The thing is until recently, Cisco unofficially seemed to acknowledge this by not over-zealously removing sources of IOS images from the internet. That way students could obtain the systems they needed for their studies, while they could continue to license to their core market of enterprise customers, who would keep their licensing genuine in order to qualify for support. In this way, everybody was a winner. What seems to be happening now is that Cisco have made licensing an integral part of their new systems. Instead of licensing a copy of the image, the image is freely available and you license the features of the image. This means that students can no longer get a full copy of the system, despite not being able to afford to license it, or forming part of any real market for Cisco.

This brings me to my other point, that it is a bad understanding of the market that dictates the amount of piracy that takes place. If Cisco licensed images to their students for a nominal rate of say £1 per license, with the condition that it is only used by a registered student, within a lab type setup then the incentive to pirate would be removed, since the small cost would outweigh the hassle of having to search for the correct image, and Cisco would gain a small additional revenue stream. This kind of one price thinking is fairly standard across the software industry, although Microsoft for one have been extremely effective through schemes such as the Academic Alliance where I obtained much of my software, and the Home and Student versions of programs such as Microsoft Office. Then we have companies such as Adobe with the Creative Suite. Yes, I think Dreamweaver is a great piece of software, but when bundled with Photoshop, Fireworks, Flash and Acrobat, is it worth £1800 or however much they are now charging? Not really, but then if they released a £100 version for personal use so I could write this website, even if I made a small amount of money from it. Only when I was making a certain level of money would I have to upgrade to the full version. That way, adobe would cut the piracy of their products massively, raise additional revenue they otherwise would not have made, and would gain legitimacy for then chasing those that continue to pirate.

My final thought is rather ironic considering that the file storage site MegaUpload has been shuttered and its operators arrested on piracy charges. Doing that will change absolutely nothing, if you shut down a site, there will always be another. If you corrupt DNS, someone will come up with an alternative. No matter what authorities do, while people are unwilling to legitimately obtain content there will always be a black market for it, and each time a work around is made, security and stability are left to suffer. The result of this will be that the internet is heading for a political and technical mess in which disparate networks end up fighting each other and the end of a standardised architecture. This simply cannot be allowed to happen, and rather than sponsoring bad law, those that profit from content need to look at their business and determine how to make it easier and more convenient for people to obtain content legitimately than to pirate it.


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