Sunday, January 22, 2012

Defending our freedom to share

Note that this clip is also available on YouTube here.

This is an interesting talk. SOPA and PIPA were pushed as anti-piracy measures, and that might seem reasonable. Certainly, copyright holders are being ripped off by organized criminal operations, usually based in China or elsewhere overseas, that often sell movies and games even before the legitimate products are available.

But these bills won't do anything about that. In fact, from what I can tell, so far nothing has had much of an effect on piracy. This is the excuse for these bills, but is that the real reason? In this TED talk, Clay Shirky explains why we should doubt that.

Do you ever watch YouTube videos? YouTube makes it very easy to create and share your own videos. But every amateur video clip you watch on YouTube is time you could have spent watching a commercial television show or movie.

Is that what really has Hollywood running scared? Most of that amateur content isn't very good, but there's a lot of it. At the very least, it's a real time-waster. And some of it is pretty good. Either way, it's competition that big media companies don't want.

At the very least, it's competition for your time. As Shirky says, it used to be that television networks had only two other shows as competition in each time slot. Sure, you could do other things, rather than watch TV at all. But you didn't have the internet, with a pretty much unlimited amount of content available.

This reminds me of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in computer games. That's also claimed to be an anti-piracy measure. Mainstream game developers, huge multinational corporations which spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a computer game, want to protect their investment.

That seems reasonable enough. And piracy is rampant. But DRM doesn't work on pirates, since they always crack the code pretty much immediately. Generally, what it does is cause lots of problems for legitimate users, the people who actually purchased the game. How is that a good thing?

But there's something else it does. When you buy a game these days, you don't actually own it. You can't sell it to someone else when you get tired of it, or if it turns out you don't like the game. All you're buying is the right to play the game for awhile. How long? Well, as long as the game developer wants you to play it.

Now me, I often play old games. These are games I bought years ago, games which don't have DRM. I do own those games. But when I'm happily playing an old game, that means I'm not buying a new one. And game developers, reasonably enough, want us to buy new games.

So, is DRM really about piracy, as they say? If so, it's completely ineffective. Or is it about planned obsolescence? Is it about making sure that no one can keep playing old games, that we have to buy new ones, instead? After all, as soon as a company stops supporting that DRM, the game is useless. (Unless you'd bought a pirated copy, of course.)

I don't know. Maybe that's just a crazy conspiracy theory. Maybe these multinational corporations are so inept that they keep using DRM for piracy, just as they say, despite the fact that it doesn't work. I don't know. All this is pretty new, so we'll just have to see how it plays out.

When it comes to SOPA and PIPA, those bills have been pulled from consideration, at least for now. Internet users organized a mass protest, a flood of complaints to their senators and their congressmen, that was very effective. But this issue isn't going to go away.

Big media companies have a lot of money to throw around, and Citizens United has basically made it legal to buy politicians. Corporations, after all, are just people, too, right? Thanks to that ruling, money is more powerful politically than it's ever been before.

The people still have the final say, but we're going to have to watch this. And we're going to have to contact our representatives, when necessary. Apathy isn't going to cut it.

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