One of the key points in the excellent Lessig TED video mentioned here recently is that our copyright and IP laws are so patently (ho, ho) absurd that we’re creating a generation of infringers. Our kids grow up routinely violating copyright laws. Some do so knowingly, and just dismiss the laws in question as so silly as to be of no consequence. Others veil their transgression in a fog of rationalization and (often willful) misunderstanding of copyright law. And none of it’s good.
Now we have this amazing paper by John Tehranian that makes it clear that this really isn’t just a problem for “the kids” (whatever that meant anyway). We are all up to our necks in this stuff, and it just isn’t pretty. Tehranian estimates that he personally racks up $12.45 million of potential liability every day! And this isn’t due to some crazy P2P spree, this is just living his life. Most of it is extraordinarily common everyday activities like reading e-mail:
In the morning, John checks his email, and, in so doing, begins to tally up the liability. Following common practice, he has set his mail browser to automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s copyrighted text—their email—represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding. Within an hour, the twenty reply and forward emails sent by John have exposed him to $3 million in statutory damages.
It would appear that I potentially bankrupted myself and my family this morning, and all I was trying to do was clear our some of my e-mail.
There’s also a dark moral here about the dangers of tattoos, but not the one that parents usually wave around when their kids threaten to get inked:
In the late afternoon, John takes his daily swim at the university pool. Before he jumps into the water, he discards his T-shirt, revealing a Captain Caveman tattoo on his right shoulder. Not only did he violate Hanna-Barbera’s copyright when he got the tattoo—after all, it is an unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted work—he has now engaged in a unauthorized public display of the animated character. More ominously, the Copyright Act allows for the “impounding” and “destruction or other reasonable disposition” of any infringing work. Sporting the tattoo, John has become the infringing work. At best, therefore, he will have to undergo court-mandated laser tattoo removal. At worst, he faces imminent “destruction.”
(Flashbacks to when a few people were tattooing themselves the barcode version of RSA encryption algorithm, thereby turning their bodies into munitions in the eyes of the U.S. government.)
Yeah, things are definitely messed up.
And these are problems of potentially profound consequence. What are the long-term implications of all of us living in a constant state of infringement? What happens when our children grow up assuming that copyright and intellectual property laws are so horribly broken that the best response is to simply ignore them?
But these are not the issues that come up in the presidential debates, or really anywhere outside of a certainly kind of nerdly circle on-line. Worse, there are powerful forces working to entrench and extend the (broken) status quo.
It seems that a little education and some well-placed questions are in order. The idea of copyright has merit and value, but it’s clear that our increasingly narrow sense of what constitues fair use, combined with the repeated extensions of the life of a copyright, have moved us well into the absurd.
Tehranian’s paper (here, in PDF form) has the obligatory blizzard of footnotes, listing all the relevant laws and such. Thanks to M J M for providing the cool photo under a Creative Commons license so I could legally use it here without adding to my no doubt massive potential liability. And big ups to the mighty Bill Tozier for pointing me this direction.