Tag Archives: copyright

Thing-a-day 7: Plato told them: A Poem about remix

Plato told
Them that was crucified
the falling stars

time is enormous long river
and I’m standing in it just as you’re standing in it

We all put into the river
and it flows away from us

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession,
We few equals indifferent of lands, indifferent of times,
that you and he might touch each other.

certainly told them

I can reach down into that river and take out what I need
to get though this world.
Stories and songs and poems
Important events and important ideas

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
They should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Jesus told them

From pent-up aching rivers,
it flows down to me
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,

(They didn’t believe it,no
sir)it took
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth


to tell them.

(With deepest affection for EE Cummings, TS Eliot, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Utah Phillips, Yeats and William Blake)

When Copyright was Serious F****** Business

Via Patry, Albrecht Dürer’s idea of a copyright notice:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

But that to my mind still doesn’t have quite the stinging crazyjuice of this copyright warning specifically for Jews in Venice, circa 1623:

We have agreed to the reasonable and proper request of the worthy and honored Master Salamon Rossi of Mantua (may his Rock keep and save him) who has become by his painstaking labors the first man to print Hebrew music. He has laid out a large disbursement which has not been provided for, and it is not proper that anyone should harm him by reprinting similar copies or purchasing them from a source other than himself. Therefore, having seen the license granted by His Excellence, the Cattavero (may his glory by exalted), we the undersigned decree by the authority of the angels and the world of the holy ones, invoking the curse of the serpent’s bite, that no Israelite, wherever he may be, may print the music contained in this work in any manner, in whole or in part, without the permission of the above-mentioned author or his heirs for a period of fifteen years from this date. Nor is any Jew permitted under the terms of this decree to buy from any person, whether he be of our nation or not, any of these works without the permission of the above-mentioned author, who is to indicate by some special mark that he has consented to their sale by another party. Let every Israelite hearken and stand in fear of being entrapped by this ban and curse. And those who hearken will dwell in confidence and ease, abiding in blessing under the shelter of the Almighty. Amen.

Seriously, the curse of the serpent’s bite sounds like the baddest-ass DRM evar.

Age of Excessions, Part 2

The First Time You Ever Heard of the RIAA

The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group of the music industry, has been around for 58 years, founded in part to create open standards for vinyl playback so that everyone’s records would play on everyone’s record player. In general, it has come to manage the part of the music industry where the industry needs to cooperate. Here’s it’s mission in a nutshell, from the website:

…the RIAA works to protect the intellectual property and First Amendment rights of artists and music labels; conduct consumer, industry and technical research; and monitor and review state and federal laws, regulations and policies.

Like many trade groups, you’d almost certainly never heard of it. Heard of the Metal Roofing Alliance, or the Professional Liability Underwriting Society? Probably not, and there’s so many more. To know all of these groups you’d either have to be a professional conference organizer or a lobbyist, and that knowledge isn’t the sort of thing you’d drop at cocktail parties to look impressive. No one knows about trade groups because no one cares about trade groups.

What turned the RIAA into a household name was an internet application named Napster. Napster was many people’s first exposure to file sharing, especially of the peer to peer variety. It was that peer to peer aspect that made the difference. Napster was the first great collection of music (on or off the net) that was completely uncurated and open to all. Music was free, easy, and didn’t require putting on clothes to get. Discovering new music was easier than anyone could have imagined. Type in a favorite- in my case, for instance, Ani Difranco, and browse through other Ani fans’ libraries. This led me to a decade long love of Utah Philips, and the strange pride of making the discovery myself. I hadn’t relied on anyone to tell me about new music, and I hadn’t had to go out and spend (much) time and money discovering a jewel in the rough. I never even had to leave the house to develop my musical taste. With Napster, I happily reported to friends, it wasn’t so much that I could get tons of popular music for free, it was that my musical taste itself improved.

Some new bands and musicians began to see how this could help them from the other end. Get into a few libraries and get discovered, not by an A&R man but by a fanbase, one fan at a time. It wasn’t going to look like getting signed and turned into megastars, but it also didn’t look like having to win the lottery to do what you loved for a living. Most bands were still playing the label lottery, but it was only a matter of time before they figured out that music could have a middle class, and that a smaller fanbase with a more sincere love of their music was something they could live with.

Helping these musicians along was advances in software and plummeting hardware costs for music recording. Absolute top of the line music editing was still expensive, but a $1000-2000 amateur recording studio was getting better all the time. In fact, with the increasing role of sampling in music, by the late 90s or early 00s many fans couldn’t tell the difference between a professional studio produced track and a carefully and competently produced track from someone’s spare bedroom. It was amazingly fun, and people loved it. Whole genres were invented on a weekly basis. Name a segment of the society, and someone probably invented a -core for it. Nerdcore, Breakcore, Doomcore, Horrorcore, Jewcore, -core was like -gate, but for music. There was a growing sense that anyone who loved music could make music. Maybe it would suck, but it would suck because you sucked, not because your production values sucked. But even if you sucked, your friends could love you. A major label was never going to produce a song about your Everquest guild, and nothing could take the place of the pleasure of rocking out with 15 people to the soundtrack of your own tiny homophily.

And so it wasn’t the copies of Enter the Sandman that made Napster interesting. It was that Napster built the largest library of music in the history of the world, accidentally, over the course of 9 months. Everyone downloaded a few of the usual hits, but those tracks began suffering an attrition of time and interest to those parts of other people’s libraries that segmented the market by consumers’ extreme homophily. This wasn’t much, but it completed a list of threats to the way things had been.

Everything Right is Wrong Again

After about 1999, there was no function of the ‘industry’ part of the music industrial that was not under immediate existential threat. Whatever your opinion of the music industry, it had found itself in a dangerous position, through no particular action of its own, good or bad. The labels, whom the RIAA represented, had handled selecting, recording, distributing, and marketing nearly all the music anyone ever heard. It was good at it- the proverbial hit machine. As an institution the music industry studied and catered to nearly every market niche it could identify for a hundred years. Whether it was serving the greater purpose of music or music artists is immaterial. The music industry wasn’t so much the only game in town as the town itself. But the technology of the 90s took away, piece by piece, recording, distributing, marketing, and even selecting, and put it into the nebulous and ill-defined hands of ‘the people,’ who were eroding the need for ‘the industry’ altogether.

The music industry began to fight for its life. Napster was the obvious weak point- a company that could be attacked on legal grounds. Napster was destroyed in 2001, and it was in the course of its destruction that the RIAA became for the first time something people had heard of. We were aware of the blackbox in the middle of the institution of music only at the point where it became threatened with extinction. People don’t go down easy, and the RIAA was made of people, most of whom couldn’t see where they’d done anything wrong or different than they’d ever done. When shuttering Napster didn’t make the problems go away they started attacking anyone they could, and hitting them as hard as they could. One group of four college students was sued for roughly the GDP of Peru. What seemed insane made sense when you realized how entirely they were threatened.

But what were they fighting? From inside the offices of music executives this trend must have looked like the Borg, or the Blob, or even the zombie apocalypse. Everything the net touched turned against the way things had been. Artists and fans were bypassing the conduits that had been connecting them for the length of living memory. The only thing the industry could do was get between them and force them apart in an effort to remain relevant. The conduit had become the barrier, not because it had changed, but because everything around it had changed, quietly, quickly, and with no warning. The industry wanted to live.

But before the internet threatened to destroy the RIAA with digital piracy, it had already destroyed digital piracy.

Next: Part Three, The brief and illegal life of the Scene.

The Age of Excessions

Part One: The question and the answer.

While this essay represents bits of 18 years of thinking and observing human institutions responding to the various forces I’ve encountered (primary in technology and medicine) I was prompted to write it in response to a question a man asked me last summer at a conference on the future. His question, roughly put, was this: How do you tell what institutions are about to get disrupted? My answer, equally paraphrased was this: any part of an institution that was there to facilitate information is going to go away in favor of the internet. This answer was both too general in that I never really explained what facilitating information meant or how the internet would destroy it, and too specific, because I only talked about the internet, as if it were the only technological force looming over these institutions.

What follows is a longer reply to the question about the fates of institutions, past, present, and future. I believe we are entering an age where these disruptions come at a speed we’ve never dealt with before. It’s bountiful in destruction and utopianism. It’s a stochastic time, with too much of everything. These changes so severe they break social institutions before new institutions can evolve. These changes are so many, it’s the defining characteristic of the age: an age of excessions.

An excession is something that exceeds the current frame of reference, and therefore wrecks it. I’ve stolen the word from the illimitable writer and thinker Iaim M. Banks, but it’s not my intention to attribute my definition to him. For my purposes an excession doesn’t have to just come from outside the frame of reference, like the WWII troops that landed on Micronesian islands bearing Cargo. They can also arise internally, like puberty. As a matter of fact, laying aside the occasional meteorite, hurricane, or well armed British explorer, almost all do arise from colliding forces inside humanity. But they all feel like the weather, an unpredictable thing outside our comprehension or control that tends to smack us around without warning. Many excessions arise from colliding forces of social power structures and technological progress. One of the reasons that so many excessions are so surprising is that politicians and technologists usually think they are where the really important stuff is, their worlds providing the invisible climate to each other. There are other spheres that provide more invisible climate, but even trying to talk about these two is confusing enough to start with. Technology and politics are incredibly compelling, and looking closely at either will convince anyone that they’ve found the cornerstone to history, stories of progress that really explain what’s going on, and what they can’t explain was random chance or the hidden variables- more weather. If a political thinker looks at the history of New York in the mid-century they uncover Robert Moses as an explanation of everything. A technologist looks at the same story and sees the inevitable result of advances in building materials and automobile engineering. Arguing who really has history figured out between the two is like arguing nature and nurture in children- turns out to be incoherent and not as interesting as you think. I will try very hard not to do that.

The greatest institutions meet one of history’s poltergeists

In the 1980s the nascent social force of the internet entered a world of unprecedented consolidations. Nation-states, corporations, and even religions were larger and more coherent than at any other time in history. Partly that was the first order effect of rising population levels, but it was came from the need for cohesion in scaled up societies. We were not merely millions of Americans together, we were part of the capitalist faction of humanity, employees of megacorporations, and citizens of a government so sprawling it couldn’t be held in the mind. One of the benefits of the project that both consolidated and segmented the world is that we could substitute categories for people, something the modern mind needed desperately.

The 19th and 20th centuries had done something disturbing to humanity; it had made us aware of there being so many more people than we could ever know or form opinions of. Even if you managed to spend your life in in the village of your birth and not know more than 150 people (and fewer of us could manage that) you now had more and more a sense of the oppressive other. There were millions of people out there, then billions, a crush of humanity that the social human mind couldn’t take in. Being able to make simple statements like ‘capitalists are like me, communists are evil’ was a way of managing the terrible weight of the unknowable other. Capitalism itself was an attempt to scale social institutions to keep up with populations, as was socialism. They were the organizational systems humans desperately latched onto to deal with the sudden logistical problems of there being so damn many of us.

We often think of this process of happening slowly, but if you were to extend the history of humanity back to the founding of civilization at 12,000 years, or reasonably even to the beginning of our speciation around 200,000 years ago, the last 200-300 years suddenly looks like what it is- the adaptation of human institutions at a breakneck pace. For the first time changes routinely lapped generations. The elders couldn’t even recognize the world they’d always been meant to comment on. Their roles of wisdom were stunted: the world they knew so much about was gone.

The internet (and here I include the greater telephony it’s part of) was about accelerate and rearrange everything it touched, creating and collapsing scaling problems in institutions like a mad poltergeist of history. Not necessarily via the usually discussed channels, like blogging, but by rendering obsolete the mass infrastructure of information wherever the net arrived. The middle layer of communication and cultural cohesion that had once been the largest, richest, most articulate part of the economy and culture was rendered obsolete without even the courtesy of being dismantled. Overnight, the conduits not only ceased to be conduits, they became barriers, without ever changing their behavior. Tt was as if the world had spun 180 degrees around them. People don’t handle this sort of thing well. In fact, they kind of go crazy.

Next: The first time you ever heard of the RIAA

To reverse the attrition by Twitter

Of small notes. Has anyone else noticed this addendum on the Whitehouse Flickr stream of this:

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

But the copyright notice says this:

United States Government Work

Which links to this:

A work that is a United States Government work, prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties, is not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no U.S. copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work. Anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws,

* reproduce the work in copies in print or in digital form;
* prepare derivative works of the work;
* perform the work publicly;
* display the work;
* distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.

(Which I knew)

So that note above is a bullshit bluff, which is common, but seems beneath the dignity of the Whitehouse.

Sita Sings the Blues: A Funded by You Production

I first came across Sita Sings the Blues because it’s the poster child for free expression in the copyfight crowd. Its creator is Nina Paley, an indie filmmaker, animator, and writer. She created a version of the Ramayana that reflected her own life and political environment. Aubrey Menen did that was well, and made a book I have loved since I was a child. (It’s also the source of one of my favorite quotes: “What we call History is merely Shiva’s procrastination.”)

Sita Sings the Blues, like Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana, is just damn good. The Ramayana turns out to make some good culture when ripped off, which is to my mind one of the marks of a quality holy book or myth. That it was a damn good movie which also happens to get screwed by copyright law is what made it such a popular and fine example of the harm over-zealous IP protection can do, not how screwed Paley was in particular.

Much of the media generated in opposition to current copyright regimes is nice politically and all, but it’s terrible artistically. “Honesty,” says Paley, “is where the soul of art comes from.” Not community belonging, or opposition to a legal principle, or even trying to get liked. Paley’s honesty took her to pick up the songs of the long dead Annette Hanshaw and make them the voice of Sita, the wife of the god figure Rama. Hanshaw sings sad and soulful songs of lover’s devotion while getting royally screwed. Sita also gets royally screwed in the tale, a distinctive feminine view of the original, and matching Paley’s own sense of betrayal from her runaway partner, Dave.

It’s obvious when you see the film that simply nothing else could have brought the same quality as Hanshaw. A different movie could have been made, but not Sita Sings the Blues. Hanshaw is just a couple years more recent than the magic 1923 number for public domain, and therefore locked away from use without a license for many years to come. Despite the fact that nobody but Paley seems to have known about her, being publicized in Sita can only generate more interest and sales, the rightholders are strict. It would cost somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000 to ever show Sita in a theatre legally.

Some people say it’s not good art unless it pisses someone off. By that score, Sita Sings the Blues is great art. Not only does Paley live with the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in suits over using Hanshaw’s songs, Hindu fundies have threatened to hang her for turning the Ramayana into a feminist yarn in which Rama comes across as kind of a dick.

If you can’t tell, I love Sita Sings the Blues. So much that it’s been nearly impossible to write about it, because every time I try I end up watching it again and just losing my writing time. It survives rewatching easily. It chunks, each little bit works as a short that still adds up to a coherent whole. Don’t just take my unqualified word for it. None other than Roger Ebert himself gushes about it at least as much as I.

One of the most telling criticisms of Paley is that she knew what she was getting into by using Hanshaw’s work. Of course she did, kind of. She knew she had right to clear. She didn’t research it too hard though. She had a movie to make, and she wanted to make her movie, not the movie that would be easy to clear rights for. “If I kill my own art out of fear of them, then I’ve really lost,” she told QuestionCopyright.org. That she walked down this road is a credit to her as an artist, even if it’s not a credit to her commercial sensibilities.

She acknowledges that her commercial problem is the common problem of remixers these days. “I am taking ideas that have been around for thousands of years, and 80 years, and only a few years… and I synthesize something.” And, like other remixers, this may mean that she can’t ever sell what she’s done. Paley went ahead and released her source files for Sita as well as posting it at archive.org. Others have started to remix her scenes into new things, some of which she posts on her blog.

As of last count the archive alone had 113,259 downloads, plus god knows how many on the torrents and from other sites. Would she have gotten more or less from a commercial release? I have no idea. I don’t know how art house indie films like Sita normally do. I suspect in the long run she will do well out of it, from donations, and a fanbase that would have been totally unreachable from the film festivals Sita would have played in. The people who cared about the copyright aspect did well too, seeing something wonderful and mythic and feminist that doesn’t generally intrude on the IP geeking community. Without her troubles and openness I don’t know that I would have gotten a chance to see Sita, so for my own small selfish part, I’m glad she ran into her copyright troubles. I hope it turns out in the long run it works out well for her too.

Looking for your questions…

On digital rights, to answer in an upcoming article in Maximum PC magazine. I’m especially looking forward to questions on mashups, if there’s anything you’ve wondered about, or suspect other people are wondering about. Please feel free to post them in the comments, or to make your life much easier you can mail them to my quinnnorton.com address (quinn @) or Twitter them to @quinnnorton.


Tab dump

  • King Kaufman scathingly replies to the above: We must kill press freedom to save it. I guess the most fun part of watching a replaying of the RIAA, MPAA, and (to a lesser extent) TV wars it this time the writing is much better.
  • YADFWI. (Yet another DFW interview) This one while he was writing IJ, and expresses something I’ve never been able to express myself about why I think utilitarianism is quite possibly evil. He also gave me better ways to talk about Wittgenstein. And express that poetry is the opposite of logical positivism. God, just go read it

Newspapers vs Journalism: legislation and special pleading

The Brothers Marburger want to rewrite copyright law to save newspapers, and thereby, journalism. They want “aggregators” to pay “newspapers” for linking to/summarizing their pieces, and they want to bar “aggregators” from “profiting” from the articles “belonging” to a “newspaper” for 24 hours after posting. Quotes here are mine, to convey that none of these words mean anything particularly precise. There’s so much to take apart here, I’m stymied as to where to begin.

One thing I should admit upfront is that I have never in my life subscribed to a newspaper. My mother did for a while. I was in one, the Evening Outlook in Santa Monica as a kid, and I liked that. But not only did I rarely read them, when I did it was mostly the comics and the stock prices1. There’s a simple physical reason- I hate the way the paper and ink feel on my skin. Cheap newsprint on my fingers acts on my nervous system like finger nails on a chalk board. I hate hate hate slightly slightly greasy, slightly crumbly texture, and the way it comes off on my hands, making them feel dirty, dried out, and oily all at once. Just talking about it makes me want to wash my hands.

But boy did I always love the idea of journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer and journalist when I grew up pretty much from the 3rd grade. Knew. (Why I didn’t start until I was in my 30s is another long and at times troublesome story) For both dermatological and career/personal reasons, the coming of the web opened the door to my first desire. I left what was shaping up to be a lucrative career in interface design to become a freelance writer.

Some friends expressed their confusion; I was jumping off the Queen Mary onto a barge that was not only skanky, but as far as anyone could tell, already actually on fire. 2005/6 was a hell of a time to declare oneself for journalism. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, though I interviewed once at the Chron. I was told ‘morale is very low’ during the interview, for which I had no pithy reply. A few moments later I admitted that I read my news off Google News. I didn’t get the job. When I was asked later by a Reuters guy why the hell I’d gone for that interview, I told him I kind of wanted to work in a newspaper’s newsroom before they all went away, and I figured that was one of my last chances. He laughed the hard laugh of the bitter and damned, and asked if he could quote me.

People have wondered why I’m not more scared, and the short answer is this: I’m not an employee. I’m a well, a mine. Whatever else gets lost or shuffled, I’m necessary. I can interview, investigate, learn, and then explain. I can write and take pictures. I can give you whatever form you want for those final productions, I don’t care that much. Like the musician and the auteur, I am the natural resource that becomes the product in the hands of an industry. Wherever you put me, however much you pay me, whatever my outlet, I’m still a journalist.

Just like the RIAA isn’t actually trying to save the art form of music, and the MPAA isn’t trying to save the filmic expression, Newspaper people aren’t trying to save journalism. Sometimes the people aligned with these organizations know this, and argue instead for the value their particular infrastructures add to those fields. Those more respectable arguments I can appreciate even when I don’t completely agree.

In an interview I did years ago with Monique Wadsted of the Swedish bit of the MPA (The MPAA’s wee international bit) she argued that in the long run uncontrolled piracy could threaten the huge budget productions that we enjoy. She has a point- a flattened marketplace may not have the investment capital to pour into a yearly summer blockbuster season that costs as much as a small nation’s GDP. I am not actually being flippant here. I love summer blockbuster season. I love the enormous spectacle of the things, their ridiculous scale, comic book motifs and the jewel tone richness. I’m glad we make them, the same way I’m glad people thousands of years ago made the pyramids. But I don’t confuse the pyramids with all building, or Hollywood productions with all cinematic expression.

It seems like every time someone argues for tightening copyright to protect their industry, they conflate their industry with their field of endeavor. But it’s newspapers that are the absolute worst offenders here. Newspapers, newspaper people contend, are the only authoritative source of journalism, the only trustworthy arbiters, the only stalwart defenders democracy can trust. For the sake of our soul as a nation the laws must be changed to ensure the survival of their business model. This argument has the kind of conflict of interest and special pleading that gets journalist salivating, when it’s not about the people that sign their checks.

Some are salivating anyway, like my friend just this guy I happen to know, no friendship stuff or anything, King Kaufman at Salon. He co-writes the Future of Journalism blog, which can be ungentle, at times, with the blithering idiots.

There’s a form of the argument against amending the laws that doesn’t apply to the RIAA or MPAA, which is that newspapers were shitty at their sacred duty. Bill Wyman lays this out very nicely- that the business incentives all pointed towards not upsetting or offending anyone, which kind of runs counter to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Newspapers did come to play it safe, and safe became more important in many cases than right. As Lore pointed out, “No one ever got fired for installing an evil Microsoft product.” Part of the problem was also biological structural: primates don’t like getting yelled at and avoid it. There are a few that by some accident aren’t too put off by this, and they do often become journalists. They don’t often become managers, even the ones that work at papers.

There’s an argument newspapers were compromised by media consolidation and therefore don’t deserve the protections they seek. These are interesting arguments, and should probably get lots and lots of blah blah blah Inside Journo Baseball. But I don’t actually care about them. Even if they did everything right I don’t want to see newspaper’s special pleading succeed. There’s no reason it has to be them doing it in the future, that journalism has to look like it did in the past.

That there is something good in an existing institution isn’t enough. It has to be better than what we gain when we lose it. For instance, there are a lot of things we might gain from perfect DRM, but creating perfect DRM would require outlawing and destroying the general purpose computer. No contest- we’ll live without.

What the brothers Marburger would ask the world to give up is the fast linking and commentary of the internet, and the diversity of talents outside of corporate newspapers becoming the watchdogs of society. They would also ask the world to give up a lot of reporting, and some of the power media has to afflict the comfortable.

Scandals would be far easier to get out in front of if news spreading is slowed by copyright restrictions. I can get my side of the story out to as many aggregators and blogs as possible, your side has to wait 24 hours. Is an aggregator still an aggregator if it does original reporting or commentary? There aren’t many that don’t. Is WaPo still a paper when it blogs, quotes, and links? Do I get to sue them if they link to and reproduce this post before a day has passed? More news stories then ever are bubbling up from on-site amateurs, will this law protect them? From what? If several people are all working on the same story, does only the first one get to publish? Does it depend on how much one’s employer looks like an aggregator vs newspaper? If so, what incentive does anyone have to take a little extra time to get it right? If I want to make sure a story never really can be written about, can I “register” somewhere as a paper and write about it every 24 hours? What about international sources, are they to be protected/embargoed? If I put my aggregator in Latvia, but live in NYC and take adverts from Google, what are you going to do? What about when the whole situation is reversed, as in the case of Global Voices2?

And all of this might not even save newspapers, even while the damage to journalism would be intolerable. And I like journalism more.

1 Mom’s requirement. I have the distinction of being the only person I know that knew how to read the financial papers, operate several kinds of firearms, hide illegal drugs on my person, relate and analyze good portions of Greek mythology, and identify and sabotage a distributor cap by around age 10. My parents were never, ever boring.

2 GV is pure and simple, simpler than most, a blog aggregator. When it studied its readership, it found that a very high number of people reading were journalists, and most of them admitted they’d gotten stories from GV and written about them in ‘legitimate’ news outlets. One of those journalists was me. Thanks, Global Voices! Please don’t sue me for the thing you kind of wanted me to do! Oh this has gotten so confusing.

The things we all know and won’t say about copyright laws

We argue at length about all sorts of issues- time shifting, format shifting, sharing with friends, remixing, fair use, file sharing, blah blah blah. I get questions all the time in person and in mail, about points of IP law. I try and head them off quickly with the IANAL1 declaration, but usually it turns out I do know the answer. Most people’s questions regarding copyright law are pretty simple and settled issues. (Not all. Sometimes I know the answer, but it’s “Nobody knows!”. Points of copyright law are much like subatomic physics in that way, in that they exist in probabilities more than realities until they get interpreted by a court.)(That’s one of my surefire metaphors. Explaining “A ninth circuit decision collapses the Schrödinger wavefunction of a law!” really clarifies things, don’t it?)

The problem is there’s a big difference between telling you what’s illegal and telling you what not to do. Unlike most criminal law, IP law requires that the holder of the right go to the trouble of initiating a suit. If they don’t want to sue, you can “LA LA LA!” to their tune on national TV, wearing their trademarks over your naughty bits, while building their patented bicycle, selling it and encouraging everyone else to do it, too, without ever having a spot of trouble with the authorities. All those things are still illegal, highly illegal, but nobody is going to do anything to stop you.

This leads to a cultural dissonance. Is it illegal to rip your DVD of the Aristocats? You betcha. Is it wrong? Fuck, I don’t know or even care, to be honest. Is anyone going to sue you over it? No, no, no.

The truth about most copyright questions is this: no one cares if you break the law. This is not an answer lawyers can give you, and for the most part people aren’t sure enough of the law themselves to say it. I can, though. Include a picture in your high school report, rip your DVDs, give audiobooks to friends (while keeping a copy, you scoundrel!) or put up your first, horrific, 20 song Michael Jackson mashup on your website. You don’t need settled law because no one is ever ever going to sue you. Even the RIAA suits, already more rare than dying in a catastrophic freak accident2, were never directed at downloaders. Let me be redundant here- No one was ever sued by the RIAA for downloading any amount of music. That’s because they know these things, too. Some copyright violations are simply too ingrained to ever be pursued. Outlawing music sharing between friends is like outlawing the blowjob… good luck with that.

This is why copyright law is so icky these days- it’s totally disconnected with the culture. It’s not even really oppressive much of the time. It has this feel of thought crime because it’s so pervasive and so easy to break by just normally using a computer. But it’s not really Orwellian because you’d have to be totally Orwellian to enforce it universally and nobody actually wants to be that Orwellian about it. Better to be confusing and guilt inflicting, more Jewish mother than totalitarian state, with the occasional financially crucified single mom or college kid, so corporate rights holders can claim they really mean it this time.

We like to think of our laws meaning something, having teeth, and being right. We like to think of our laws as guides to good behavior, the blueprint for a polite and functional society that protects the weak and enables opportunity for all. Current copyright law, like all unreasonable law, undermines all of that. The real answer to your copyright questions is ignore the law when it doesn’t matter, and obey it when it does. How can you tell? You can’t! Isn’t this fun?

Nevertheless for the most part this is what we’re all doing these days. Most people have a good idea of when it’s really mean and harmful to infringe and don’t do it, or try to find other ways to compensate creators. People that can’t pay don’t, but then, they couldn’t pay, so no loss there. Some people really believe there should be no IP law at all, but even they are for creative people finding ways to make a living. Even the people for copyright maximalism at the total sacrifice of privacy and convenience aren’t actually for total enforcement, at least in part because they know they would be drawn and quartered. (I don’t mean in a bad press sense.) So we’re stuck with laws that not only don’t reflect reality, but in some cases actively conflict with physical realities of digital technology. We must obey them and enforce them internationally, except when we don’t at all. And their violation reflects a huge loss of money, except when that money never existed in the first place, and they limit our speech, except when they don’t because no one is bothered  about a particular work’s inclusion elsewhere anyway. Keep whistling and averting your eyes.

1. I am not a lawyer.
2. This is not my usually egregious hyperbole. If you google around, you will find various analysis from different years of the chance of being sued by the RIAA vs various weird forms of death.a

    a. But it is my usual form of laziness, given I don’t want to find all the links right now.