Piracy, Copyright Law and Social Trends

This post is prompted by a comment on my review of Partners In Crime, a documentary covering the grey areas of piracy. In my view, the grey areas discussed in this DVD do not legitimize piracy, they expose deficiencies in copyright law.

Piracy has been around for a long time and will continue to be around forever. That does not make it legitimate. (Is the world’s oldest profession legitimate?) However, some people take its pervasiveness in society as an indicator of its legitimacy. Some people engage in piracy because they either don’t understand or are confused about what counts as piracy. While I am not a legal expert, I think the following guidelines can be used to determine if copyright violation is involved:

  1. Performance – Any commercial, for-profit performance without licensing is a violation. IPRS publishes a list of performances that require licensing – http://iprs.org/tarifflist.asp
  2. Distribution/Publishing – If you’re distributing/publishing copyrighted work, you should have a license. If you don’t, you’re infringing on someone’s copyright. There are some exceptions for fair use. For example, if you’re reviewing a book, quoting small excerpts from it is OK.
  3. Consumption – You are probably involved in copyright violation if your content comes from a distributor/publisher who has not acquired license to distribute the content. (Hint: If a website gives away for free, what others sell; it is highly probable that they don’t have a license to distribute the content.)

Taking these guidelines, here’s my assessment of some cases that seem to confuse people:

  1. We made photocopies of books in college. Isn’t that legal? – Not legal. Every book notifies the readers of copyrights – “No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form….without the prior written permission of the publisher.”
  2. Singing a song in college fest – Since it’s not for profit it’s not a copyright violation.
  3. Artists make songs inspired by other tunes all the time. Isn’t that a problem? – Yes it is. These artists would be deemed as infringing copyright if similarity with the original, copyrighted song can be proved. There are several cases of artists being sued because of this.
  4. Artists sample music of other artists all the time – Sampling of music is a contentious area. Some contend that it is copyright infringement, others say it’s fair use. Here is one site that describes what is fair use and what’s not when it comes to sampling.
  5. Everybody records songs at concerts – If it’s without permission, it’s an infringement. Most concerts inform you that you cannot record the performance.
  6. Sharing with friends and family.
    1. Sharing digital music with immediate family is OK.  This is the reason digital stores give you a license to download/copy purchased music on a certain number of devices.
    2. Sharing digital content with friends is a violation of copyright. Let them pay for their own music/movie/book.
    3. Lending a book or a CD/DVD to a friend is OK. But if the friend rips the CD/DVD or photocopies the book, then there is copyright violation.
    4. Listening to your CD while your friends are home is not a copyright violation.
    5. We see copied pictures of Mona Lisa everywhere. Isn’t that an issue? – No. Mona Lisa is out of copyright and in the public domain. People can make copies of it, or copies of copies and not be in violation of copyright. The same rule applies to Shakespeare’s works, classical compositions and folk art. You can freely copy and distribute current Bollywood movies/songs in another 60 years (provided the law does not change). Here is the copyright duration in various countries.

The guideline of “it’s OK to download stuff for free and share if it’s for personal/friends and family entertainment” is naïve and just plain wrong. Artists, musicians, authors, publishers, distributors would be robbed of their livelihood if every consumer started to use this rationale to get content for free from illegal sources.

This is not to say that copyright laws are perfect. There are people far more knowledgeable than me who are asking these laws to be amended. Here is one assessment of the copyright amendment bill that was passed recently in India. At a high level, I think copyright law should do the following:

  1. Facilitate easy, legal and fairly priced access to content to all consumers
  2. Enable copyright owners and content creators to profit from their content
  3. Enable publishers, distributors to license copyrighted content easily and at a fair price.

One thought on “Piracy, Copyright Law and Social Trends

  1. ps

    🙂 I know – but we are in a similar space – Copyrights of content that we are producing. Pretty much anything that can be said about music/painting etc is also valid for technical content and journalism.There are things that I agree and things that bother me.

    I’d agree that people who create content should OWN it and should be the recipients of benefits around it. But sometimes the rules are such that it makes it impractical.

    Lemme take an example – when we attend a concert, even if they inform me that we cannot record the music – do they give me an option to BUY the recording of the concert. If they do – a few people might not ‘break the law’. Is it wrong to want to relive and enjoy the experience again – if we are willing to pay for it?

    I fully agree that there would still be people wanting to get something for free – and that’s plain wrong. But there are some instances where we don’t have a structure to pay for it. I think that most legal rules should also make it practical for people and then expect them to ‘comply’ with the laws.

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