Naked theft or good publicity – the online content debate rages

By Alex Ward

The internet has created a great unknown when it comes to what constitutes copyright and whether people are infringing it. In an age where people download music for free, stream movies and TV shows, re-tweet links to articles or share photographs, the copyright line between what is right and wrong has been blurred.

A fifth of all online users have accessed content illegally and they’re doing it because it’s cheap, free and easy to access according to a Kantar Media report. Between November 2012 and January this year a huge 280 million songs were digitally pirated along with 52 million TV shows, 29 million movies and 18 million e-books according to Ofcom. But what does infringing copyright mean in this digital brave new world and is it really such a bad thing?

For author and president of the Society of Authors Philip Pullman, illegal downloading is stealing, plain and simple. In a recent article in Index on Censorship magazine defending copyright law, he wrote that it was tantamount to “moral squalor”. “It is outrageous that anyone can steal an artist’s work and get away with it,” he wrote. “It is theft, as surely as reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet is theft.”

He makes a point. Musicians and production companies proceeded to lose millions as illegal downloads and file sharing took hold some ten years ago but in today’s online environment, where sharing content has become such a huge part of the way we communicate, does copyright have the same meaning?

In response to his article, one person commented: “Theft requires the intention to permanently remove something tangible from the victim by the perpetrator, and digital *copying* doesn’t do that. The original copy is still there. The person sharing the content may be guilty of copyright infringement, however. But that is not theft.”

Some argue that ‘stealing’ intellectual property has bettered their careers, generating a wider audience and publicity for their work than they could have ever imagined. Surely even Pullman couldn’t argue that his career hasn’t been aided by publicity, whether it be in the traditional sense or not. Take sci-fi author Cory Doctorow for example. When first starting out he made his books easy to access online in the hope it would help his livelihood rather than hinder it. “My problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity,” he once said. Now a world famous writer, it seems his method – the exact opposite of Pullman’s thinking – was a big part of what got him there.

When content goes viral, what then? Photos and snippets of information posted on social networking site Twitter which are then re-tweeted sometimes thousands of times lean toward a sharing of information. But what if the original content was in fact infringing copyright in the first instance? Who is at fault, if anyone? After being replicated so many times, the content thrust into the public domain, has the infringement been somewhat watered down?

One disgruntled photographer vented his frustrations on website Slate after viral media site Buzzfeed used one of his photographs without permission on a story that went gang busters online. The article ’18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong’ attracted 4.2 million hits and although that was 4.2 million views of his photograph that he may not have got elsewhere, photographer Dan Catt was not pleased. Buzzfeed did not link directly back to its original location, which could have generated some publicity for Catt, and the photo had all rights reserved and so was a copyright infringement. After Catt made his feelings known, Buzzfeed took down the photograph and agreed to donate $500 to a charity of his choice.

Aggregator sites, which trawl the web to bring together content on a certain topic such as the latest news, often fall into a grey area surrounding copyright. The ‘fair use doctrine’ allows for copyrighted content to be reproduced for news reporting, opinion or criticism but there is a fine, hazy line which can quickly fall into plagiarism. Associated Press successfully settled with Meltwater, an aggregator site, after it sold excerpts from AP stories to its customers and in doing so, infringing the news wire service’s copyright. Judge Denise Cote wrote in her judgement: “Through its use of AP content and refusal to pay a licensing fee, Meltwater has obtained an unfair commercial advantage in the marketplace and directly harmed the creator of expressive content protected by the Copyright Act.”

Online copyright is a much more complex battleground than print and it pulls up so many questions raised about copying, sharing and linking to content. Cathy Casserly, the CEO of Creative Commons, a non-profit that offers open content licences, argues that copyright law was created in an “analog age”. “By default, copyright closes the door on countless ways that people can share, build upon, and remix each other’s work, possibilities that were unimaginable when those laws were established,” she says.

“The creators who are thriving today are the ones who use internet distribution most innovatively; in fact, the ones who are most generous with their work often reap the most reward.”

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