Copyright and piracy

2012-03-22 11:23

I recently happened to read an old David Pogue column in Scientific American, where he pointed out that modern copy protection schemes are punishingly hard on legitimate users, but have no effect on pirates.

Early in the piece, he asserts that the “ruined it for everyone” person was the first person to pirate something. On thinking about it more, this is wrong.

The entire argument about piracy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of copyright. Copyright is not a moral law; it is a lesser-of-evils, a way for society to provide some reasonable confidence that creative types can get paid for their work.

Here’s the thing. When evaluating the “impact” of alleged piracy, the question of how many unauthorized copies are made is not even the right question. The question is how many copies are sold. Period. If one course of action gets me 1000 sales, and another course of action gets me 2000 sales, the second course of action is better for me as a seller. Period. It does not matter whether there are five unauthorized copies or a million; all that matters is how many sales I get.

And what we consistently find (Mr. Pogue having reported the same experience everyone else does) is that freely available copies increase sales.

What’s getting overlooked here is the insane cost to us of this. Consider HDCP. Every “high definition” digital device is supposed to implement this scheme that’s supposed to prevent decrypting data, so people can’t copy it. Why? Because of fear of copies. But… copies are not a problem. There is nothing, anywhere, showing that freely available copies of media have a negative impact on its sales; instead, we consistently find increases in sales. But as a sop to this baseless superstition, we are spending many millions of dollars producing devices which are less capable than they would be, testing things, encountering mysterious problems with compatibility that require debugging and patches, and so on. People buy a TV and a game console, and find that the console doesn’t work with the TV reliably but there are rumors of a patch that will fix it in a few months.

All because people are asking the wrong question. The question is whether you are making more or less money. The answer is that letting people make copies makes you make more money. Period.

What we need is not stuff like SOPA and PIPA. It isn’t even the DMCA. It’s to start responding to reality, and not fear.

And before you dismiss this as something that will take years to be fully realized: Consider that the music industry said they were going to die if people could make tapes or CDs, too. Every time a new way of copying music shows up, the music industry claims that it will destroy them, and it actually increases sales. Every. Time. Why would this change now?

Peter Seebach

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