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The Semantics of File Sharing 506

ethericalzen writes "The LA Times has published an opinion article about the legal semantics and analogies of file sharing. The article includes arguments from those who believe file sharing is theft and those who strongly disagree. As it points out, the common analogies to theft are often incomplete or inaccurate. The author states, "balancing the interests of content creators against the public's ... is a much more complicated task than erecting a legal barrier to five-fingered discounts." He recognizes that it is not a trivial concept, and that the clamoring from both camps about definitions and moral boundaries will dictate how businesses and users function in the future."
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The Semantics of File Sharing

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  • by Damon Tog ( 245418 ) * on Thursday February 21, 2008 @08:29PM (#22509888)
    This article brings out the common observation that copies of files are, in theory, unlimited. If this is true, it means that the way music (and movies, and books, etcs.) are sold must change.

    BUT this does not mean that music should be free--it means that today's "a la carte" method of selling music is obsolete.

    A rough comparision would be to the cable industry. When you subscribe to cable, you are not forced to pay for each television show that you watch (think iTunes), you simply pay a flat rate and watch as much as you want. This is how recorded music must now be "sold." Selling music one file at a time does not reflect the "fluid" nature of digital media and is rightfully held in low regard by filesharers.
  • by schwaang ( 667808 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @08:48PM (#22510062)
    Yes, there are some who will make various intellectual arguments for why it should always be legal to rip the latest Disney movie for free. In the end, it's for the common good that we have created an artifical set of rules that allow creators to be compensated for their otherwise easily copied works. The guy on the street overwhelmingly agrees with this, just as he also agrees on an artificial speed limit for his car.

    But there is room for serious dispute over where that artificial line is drawn, and how the rules get enforced. The problem isn't that copyright makes piracy (aka "sharing") illegal. It's that technological enforcement of copyright via "digital rights management" (DRM) just goes too far in restricting human nature. And such attempts to force universities or ISPs to police their students from committing piracy is draconian (plus so lame).

    The hard problem isn't to decide whether or not to have copyright law. It's how do we let Disney be paid for every copy of a movie, while still allowing the common man to make a backup copy of his DVD library, or lend a movie to a friend, or use a clip in a remix?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @08:57PM (#22510142)

    If I shared the contents of your PC with the world, would that be OK?
    That is unpublished information. I have no difficulty with people holding information private. I just say if they don't want it copied, they shouldn't fucking release it and then ask the whole world not to share it. fuck 'em. Our freedom to communicate is more important than their "freedom" to profit.

    How about sharing the contents of your bank account?
    That is a particularly idiotic argument. Note that just because you have a copy of the information of the balance of my current account, EUR17382.68, you can't affect it. You can increment, decrement it, tell your friends, all without affecting my bank account. That's because what matters is what the bank (and I) think my balance is, not what your copy says. Different copies of information are different physical things.
  • by Z34107 ( 925136 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @09:20PM (#22510320)

    No. Theft is Theft. Copyright infringement is Copyright infringement. Both illegal, but both very distinct and seperated. Why do people not get this?

    Either way, you're getting something you haven't paid for, so the distinction is lost on most people.

    "No, having a copy of this CD isn't stealing because it's intellectual property!" doesn't make sense to most people.

  • by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @09:47PM (#22510508) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, because the Amendments are listed after the section listing the powers of Congress?

    Also, note that the Constitution does not grant "IP" rights. It grants

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

    Not IP, but to Writings and Discoveries. Note that bit about "limited Times", too. Note also that it doesn't guarantee a profit.
  • by LingNoi ( 1066278 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @09:52PM (#22510548)
    Then perhaps you'd like to purchase the rights for public demonstrations of the "happy birthday" song [] that you will inevitability sing when something increments their age count.

    Yes the "Happy Birthday" song is copyrighted and still collecting fees to this day from radio stations, etc. It's set to expire in 2030 apparently (i'm sure copyright extensions will prevent that).

    The real question that should be asked is, at what point does a piece of music become part of the public domain culture? What's next? A patent on Christmas?

    For an awesome (legal download) documentary on piracy, copyright, etc I highly recommend Steal this film 2 [].
  • by darkpixel2k ( 623900 ) <> on Thursday February 21, 2008 @10:02PM (#22510610) Homepage
    That's retarded.

    The argument doesn't hold up because bread is physical. It's a collection of atoms. You can't wave a magic wand and have an exact duplication of that bread. Data is more ethereal. It's easy to duplicate.
    The real argument goes like this:

    If you come over to my house and take my candybar, you are in possession of a candybar and I am without.
    That's theft.

    In the digital age, if you come over to my house and take a copy of my CD, you are in possession of a CD, and I am *STILL IN POSSESSION OF MY FUCKING PROPERTY*, you just have an exact duplicate.

    It's not theft.
    The music companies want you to believe you have harmed them out of their fair share.

    But what if tomorrow I invented a replicator just like you'd see on Star Trek. ...and I replicated myself a nice new car, just like yours. Then I go and find Linus and replicate the uber-badass laptop I imagine he must have, and finally I go next door and replicate my neighbor's candybar. Is that illegal? Hell no.

    I'm not against the *AA because I want free music, I'm against the *AA because they are trying to legislate against one of the basic things about computers and data. It's easy to duplicate and they don't want it to be without paying them money or fines or whatever.

    They can get fucked.
  • by Heir Of The Mess ( 939658 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @10:31PM (#22510834)

    Here's an analogy for you:

    Supposing the leader of country, lets call him Hitler, made it such that all the german cultural productions couldn't be sold or broadcast unless they went through an organization of his. This organization diddled the originators out of what money they thought they were going to get. Furthermore the artists basically wanted to have their works heard by all the people, but the government decided when and what people could listen too, except for the wealthy who could pay to have their own copies of the large bodies of work.

    The money raised by this organization was used to persecute a minority based on their choice of a religion that was a foundation of Christianity which is the dominant religion.

    So if a person copied a piece of their culture so that they could listen to it when they wanted to should they be bankrupted for the rest of their lives?

    Answer: Of course! They are a pirate, and that's how the law says we treat pirates. You want to obey the law right?

    You might argue about how it depends on the use of the money. Well ok, I guess the people working for the RIAA need to open up their uses of the money so that we can judge if revenue from our culture is being spent appropriately or not.

  • by shadowkiller137 ( 1169097 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @10:32PM (#22510848)
    What the real problem is is the view in our society that monetary value is the ultimate achievement, that piece of paper with the number on it or the number in your bank account has no more real value than the ASCII code of the song you download. In theroy a random number generator could produce any of the songs that are downloaded. Would that still be considered stealing, to randomly create a code that is translated into the song? No matter how you want to place a value on an object (be it money or materials or work done) it is easy to say that for a real object, but ideas should be free flowing because if everyone adds something to that idea then they will all have paid for it.
  • Very simple to me. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @10:56PM (#22511002) Journal
    Simple: if it was theft they wouldn't need copyright law or DMCA to prosecute file sharing etc, they _could_ choose to use the various laws covering theft for that. Not saying they would but they could.

    Of course, if they convince enough people and the courts that it's theft, then legally speaking it'll be theft, BUT that hasn't happened yet, so meanwhile, the rest of us are going to keep saying its not theft :).

    What's closer to theft is the Corporations convincing the government(s) to _retroactively_ take stuff out of the public domain and make it theirs.

    When that was done we lost a lot of access/use of those stuff, stuff that we used to have the right to use freely.

    What filesharing does is it makes the Corporations lose a lot of access to our money. But the last I checked, they didn't have an automatic right to our money.
  • by rgaginol ( 950787 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @11:04PM (#22511056)

    replicate the uber-badass laptop.... Is that illegal? Hell no.
    I'm not for it, but yes, if you replicate anything with patents on it with out paying the patent holders, yess, it's illegal. Bread, as far as I'm aware, doesn't have any patents on it, but maybe some of the more interesting designs do. Complex computer chips definitely do. If however it cost zero to replicate items, I'm not sure what would happen to our economy - how would a small group police and prohibit something which was, at the end of the day, benefiting everyone. Someone has to pay for people to "create" new items and engineer them and we'd have some form of renumeration in place to do so. I guess the only conclusion I'm drawing out of all this is that having replicators in our society as it currently stands would be the start of anarchy. Heh, well kinda;P
  • by ACMENEWSLLC ( 940904 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @11:09PM (#22511072) Homepage
    The arguments I here on /. really makes me think I am surrounded by pirates here.

    Downloading a music file in itself isn't pirating. I have hundreds of MP3's on one my websites that you can download. We own the copyright to the MP3's. You and I are doing file sharing. I let you freely copy the files, without payment, and I retain the IP rights.

    It's not the file sharing that is the illegal aspect (at least not by US law, ymmv) it is the IP infringement violation that is illegal. You are stealing incoming - not the file, if you will.

    I pay for two XM Radio subscriptions. They in turn send funds to the RIAA. This is similar to the flat rate model. But the RIAA really doesn't like this. And I can't select which songs to listen too. The RIAA went after one device that had DRM but let you save songs as MP3s to the device - not exportable. RIAA doesn't like this model.

    Personally, I think the RIAA and the companies they represent are in their end of days. Why can't bands just release the music direct to the public now? Who needs a distributor, just plop it on iTunes & your website. The middle men were getting, what?, 90% of the profits? So the bands don't need nearly as much $ as we've been paying to the middle men -- to sustain themselves.

    Theres some real nice indie music out there too. You can find some of their content for free - even videos in some cases. I find myself listening to odd channels on XM. That leads me to some nice indie bands. I've bought stuff directly from their websites. Seems to me this is better for all of us. If enough of us did this, the RIAA would die.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @11:11PM (#22511086)
    The fluid nature of digital media means that even bundles of media are going to be COPIED.

    The only real question is, do we allow copying to become a crime, or do we stop it now?

    I have no problem paying for what I want. As is the case with most any of us that are gainfully employed. However, since I currently have somewhat of a choice, I choose the unencumbered version whenever possible. I also choose digital distribution because I live 82 miles from the nearest media retailer. (funny how I can get broadband but not best buy)

    Did you like Firefly? I did, I downloaded every episode. Then I went out and payed for the DVD, which is sitting unopened on my shelf next to a pile of other unopened media. Because I already fetched the media in the format I wanted it in. Why make it so hard? Why make it illegal? I just want the CHOICE that technology affords me.

    Media companies need to realize a few things. 1) their control of the distribution channels is OVER. 2) their pricing has been inflated by their monopolistic control, and is also therefore over. 3) I can, and will copy your media to suit my preference. If you give me no alternative, I'll do it "illegally". 4) if you don't start providing the media in the format people want to use it in, without draconian restrictions, someone else will. (cue pirate bay) As long as someone else is distributing it, they get to make the money from it. And don't kid yourselves, someone is always making money, none of the founders of TPB have day jobs.

    This is economics at work. DEMAND creates SUPPLY. PERIOD. Societal law comes in a distant second if it ever does.

    We are seeing the dawning of the digital ages version of prohibition. How long does it take the average twit to figure out it costs more to fight it than it does to embrace it?

    Taking another page from history, drugs, we see that sometimes, they never do. Sometimes the "interests" are so strong and so forceful in espousing their party line that the average twit never realizes the truth. Which is that if the US government could Tax illicit drugs, they could probably balance the budget.

  • Re:Its not semantics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Trogre ( 513942 ) on Thursday February 21, 2008 @11:48PM (#22511302) Homepage
    Okay fine, I agree with you (until information is legally declared property).

    But you are now bound by your own argument to never, ever again use the terms "identity theft", "code theft" or "stolen secrets".

  • Re: Replication (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 21, 2008 @11:49PM (#22511324)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 22, 2008 @03:42AM (#22512384)
    And you're entitled to that opinion, but by your reasoning...

      Listening to your car stereo at 120dB in a residential neighborhood on a Sunday morning is free speech.
      Yelling "FIRE!" in a crowded theater is free speech.
      Threatening to kill your neighbor is free speech.
      Standing across the street from an elementary school and exposing yourself is free speech.
      Carrying a sign that says "F*** N***ers" in Harlem is also free speech.

    Oh right, none of those things are actually protected as free speech. Just because you can say or display things doesn't make it a free speech issue. It's okay to quote minor excerpts of a book. However, there's a magic line where it becomes copyright violation. If you're sharing entire works, you're crossing that line.
  • Re:No better then /. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fëanáro ( 130986 ) on Friday February 22, 2008 @08:22AM (#22513354)

    A: It's theft. The theif gets something they want and they value it, yet do not pay.

    That is not the definition of theft. Not even close.

    If I go to a flower field and take a deep breath, I get something I want and value, yet do not pay.
  • by PMBjornerud ( 947233 ) on Friday February 22, 2008 @09:11AM (#22513592)

    Money is supposed to be a representation of personal bartering power, and it is also becoming increasingly abstracted from the physical medium it's used to represent.
    Money started out like easy-to-barter items like precious metals.

    "becoming increasingly abstracted from the physical medium" and being a "representation of personal bartering power" go hand in hand. Increasingly abstract.

    Personally, I consider money to represent "favor surplus". Bartering power is too related to an exchange of goods in these service-based times. The more money you have, the more favors can you call in from the world. If you're net worth is negative, you are owing favors to the world.

    Mind you, this means I disagree with gold-backed currencies. An increasingly efficient (read: abstract) currency should not be bound to physical goods.
  • by wild_quinine ( 998562 ) on Friday February 22, 2008 @10:19AM (#22514120) Homepage

    Best of all, free copying creates a worldwide decentralized backup system for these works. Many works will be saved which might have been otherwise lost because they were copyrighted for far longer than they were profitable.

    Many works will be saved by pirates becuse even simple DRM systems with no thought to the future lead to lost work. Many works have already been saved. Since copyright is supposed to protect a work before it enters the public domain, shouldn't it be illegal to block something from ever entering the public domain?

    Bioshock, I'm thinking of you. This is a game DVD in which the EXE doesn't even ship on the disc. It's downloaded as part of the 'activation' process. Severs go down, and bye bye. To say nothing of the severely limited number of times you're allowed to activate it, EVER - a program you PAID for!

  • by Sancho ( 17056 ) on Friday February 22, 2008 @11:26AM (#22514902) Homepage

    You have. They have entitlements to their fair share, being the ones who have and who are paying for those copyrighted works, and their distribution. They are the ones lowering the barrier of entry for artists. They spend lots of money promoting artists, encouraging them, and risking their all important finances (they're a corporation after all) in doing so. They at least deserve some money if you like the music.
    Imagine two scenarios:
    1) I never buy The Killer's Hot Fuss. I hear their music on the radio, and I enjoy it, but I don't want to spend the money on the CD.
    2) I download a copy of The Killer's Hot Fuss. I listen to it daily.

    In neither of these scenarios does anyone associated with The Killer's get any money from me. I've harmed them as much in scenario 2 as I have in scenario 1. In scenario 2, they probably don't even know that I've downloaded their works.

    The last quoted line of yours is the telling one. They don't deserve anything just because I like the music. They don't even deserve anything just because I listen to it, or just because I have a copy of it which I can listen to on demand, except for the fact that absurd laws claim that they do.

    I'm not against copyright in the least. I think that we wouldn't live in the culture-rich world we have if it wasn't for them. But I can't abide by the tricks that the media cartels have used to increase their stranglehold on media. [] says it best:

    This law effectively 'froze' the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still copyrighted in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterwards (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to that or if the copyright gets extended again.
    Laws like this and the DMCA, which allows companies to arbitrarily remove certain of people's rights, are simply unacceptable. The major content producers who lobby for these laws aren't playing by the rules--why should we, as consumers?
  • by plague3106 ( 71849 ) on Friday February 22, 2008 @03:40PM (#22519178)
    Well, the OP went wrong in that slavery is forced, while SK chooses to write. But at a higher level, if writers in general cannot get paid for their labor, they will out of necessety have to do something else.

    Some may still write, many won't. The end result is that we have far less literary works, which is a net loss for society, since some of those works would be thought provoking and may cause changes in societies thinking. For example, 1984 had a fairly large impact when it was first released, an impact that had lasted for quite sometime.

    As humans, part of our existence is having some kind of shared culture. Art in all its forms is important, otherwise we're just little more than animals. May as well go back to hunting and gathering.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 22, 2008 @04:17PM (#22519702)
    As usual, you are barking up the wrong tree. You are not discussing the question of whether piracy is theft: you are discussing the question of whether it is wrong.

    There is a difference between saying "piracy is not theft" (which is true) and saying "piracy is not wrong" (which is false). Piracy is not theft, for precisely the reason that you call a "stupid argument": it is not theft because the victim has not been left worse off than they were before. However, that does not alter the fact that piracy is wrong, because the victim has been deprived of a payment they had a right to receive. Please observe: I am definitely not trying to justify piracy, or to argue that it's not harming anyone, or anything like that. I am merely pointing out that it is different from theft.

    Obligatory car analogy: suppose you own a car, and I rent it from you for a week. If I don't give you back the car after that time, I have stolen it. If I give you the car back on time, but refuse to pay, have I stolen anything from you? No. I have done something similar to piracy, which is to say, I have benefited from something you own (and continue to own) without paying. I have not stolen anything. But I have still done something wrong, and you have every right to sue me.

    Look at it another way: does the law consider piracy to be the same as theft? No, not at all. If I steal something, the police will come after me, arrest me, and prosecute me as a criminal, even if all I stole was a single loaf of bread. On the other hand, if I download a movie, the police will not lift a finger to stop me, because I have not committed any crime. I have of course broken the law, and the copyright holder of that movie can sue me for something in the region of $150,000. But clearly I have not committed theft, or I would be being prosecuted by the police, not sued by a copyright holder.

    Piracy is wrong, but it is not theft. It's really not a difficult concept to grasp, once you get over this weird idea you have that the only reason anyone would want to distinguish between piracy and theft is if they want to try to argue that piracy isn't wrong.

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