163. Copyright and Digital Rights
By Andrew D. Wright
In former Halifax-based writer Spider Robinson's short story "Melancholy
Elephants" a Senator revokes his support for a perpetual copyright bill
after being convinced that all art is a finite resource that's discovered
rather than created.
There are a finite number of combinations of musical notes and only some
of these will sound pleasing to us. There are only so many colors our eyes
can see and so many ways to arrange them. New forms of art can be created
but even these will have large but not infinite possibilities.
Artists of all description need to be able to plow under creations of the
past to have the fertile soil to create the art of the future. Would we
have had "West Side Story" if the heirs of Shakespeare were able to sue
over the resemblance to "Romeo and Juliet"?
In our real world, for all practical purposes infinite copyright exists,
at least in some cases. Corporations can and do own creations, outliving
the original creators, and even their heirs.
The very definition of what copyright is and what it should be is
contentious. When you buy a record album, what exactly have you purchased?
If you play that music in the background at your business without paying
any money to the artist, are you violating the artist's copyright? What
about the version you ripped to your MP3 player?
Most of us have violated someone's copyright for something or other at one
time or other. Today's laws vary from country to country and the trend is
to more copyright law enforcement.
Halifax Internet Townhall speaker and Queens University Professor Laura
Murray made the point that human culture has always worked on the
principle of sharing a good story. She pointed out that chain letters
containing poems or lyrics were found as easily in the penny stamp era as
in today's emails.
She also pointed out how strict copyright enforcement can hurt new
research. What is an academic researcher to do when a copyright holder
refuses to allow their work to be quoted? Universities and schools have
had to implement strict copyright guidelines on quoted material.
Digital Rights Management or DRM for short is a part of the copyright
enforcement picture. DRM is software or hardware designed to restrict
access to copyright material. A DVD movie from the store has its video
content scrambled so it cannot be easily played back without the proper
encryption key. A game will require the original install disk be in the
computer to run.
In some cases the DRM can simply not work properly, or be badly thought
out, as in the case of some Sony music CDs from 2005 installing hidden
software when played on a Windows computer, software that malware writers
could easily exploit.
In other cases the DRM might need to contact an authentication server on
the Internet. After a few years these servers might be turned off, making
the original product useless.
With DRM, purchased content can even be revoked, as was the case in
mid-2009 when Amazon removed already bought and paid for copies of George
Orwell's "1984" from users with Kindle electronic book readers due to a
regional copyright issue.
There has been a lot of political lobbying from corporations with a stake
in copyright and DRM. In Canada there has been a lot of pressure, mostly
from United States-based copyright holding corporations and their Canadian
subsidiaries, for Canada's laws to change to be more in line with harsher
American laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which
criminalize anything that can be used to circumvent copy protection.
Law Professor Michael Geist's Blog:
Laura Murray's Blog:
Spider Robinson's "Melancholy Elephants":
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Originally published 15 January 2010