Thursday, 9 June 2011

NOT PJ: Taking the Mickey

_BernardDarntonThis week Bernard Darnton wouldn't steal a car, but he might download one if it was old enough.

Taking the Mickey

Outrage erupted this week as an anti-piracy video featuring comedian Rhys Darby was released to New Zealand schools. Pro-piracy campaigners announced a boycott and said they would immediately stop watching their downloaded Flight of the Conchords episodes. Darby is expected to miss out on revenues of up to $0 a week until the boycott is lifted.

There is an escalating war between the creators and distributors of films and music and the “information wants to be free” crowd who think they should be allowed to consume whatever entertainment they want without paying for it. The law is on the side of the copyright owners and technology is on the side of the pirates. Matters are foggied because the technology has myriad legitimate uses and the law is being used as a blunt weapon to bludgeon the pettiest of offenders and any inconvenient bystanders.

MickeyExhibit A: Steamboat Willie starring Mickey Mouse. This film was released in 1928. Its copyright was due to expire in 1956. Then it was renewed giving a new expiry date of 1984. Just in time, the law changed extending its protection until 2003. Yet again the horrors of public domain were avoided with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act, taking the date out to 2023. Ergo, according to the anti-copyright folks, Congress has been bought by “big media” and Disney is writing America’s laws.

Without wanting to fabricate complicated conspiracy stories, the steady increase in copyright protection does look odd. By rights, Steamboat Willie should have fallen into the public domain by now and the file-sharers should be allowed to share and remix this nugget of Americana to their hearts’ content.

At this point you need to put your conclusion-jumping shoes on because we’re off to the land of Non Sequitur. Steamboat Willie is 80 years old and I would be allowed to copy it if not for some shady corporate welfare deal. Therefore copyright is bollocks. Therefore I should be allowed to download X-Men: First Class, which is 8 days old, which is what I wanted to do in the first place before making up this rambling story about Mickey Mouse.
So, a question for the Rhys Darby boycott crowd: if information wants to be free, why didn’t X-Men: First Class just spring into existence by magic? Why did hundreds of people have to spend months of effort and $160 million to bring it into existence?

Like every good political stoush, everyone is yelling, and everyone is wrong. Media corporations are wrong to keep lobbying for extensions of copyright, lawmakers are wrong for criminalising fair use and format shifting, and file sharers are insane for thinking that they can take products without paying for them and expect the producers to keep producing.

Lawmakers are wrong for writing legislation that assumes guilt as soon as copyright infringement accusations are made and wrong again for mandating that internet access be denied to those accused. Opposing lawmakers are wrong when they claim that internet access is a human right. (Tom Paine was silent on the matter.)

Whenever I listen to an argument on this topic I want to stick both sides in a room and reboot the lot of them.

* * * * *

Bernard Darnton boots himself into action every Thursday here at NOT PC.


  1. As it happens, Steamboat Willie seems fairly clearly out of copyright - the copyright notice is not in order according to the rules of the time. [LA Times has a big damn summary.] Apparently Disney threatened to sue a guy for even saying that.

    Was only skimming so I don't know if this gives the public domain 'prior art' for other films, and I gather it would only apply to 'old school' mickey.

    And from what I heard of the UN rapporteur, the argument wasn't that the inernet was a human right per se, so much as that disconnection is always a disproprtionate punishment (and thus a breach of human rights). Which seems a bit more supportable to me.

  2. Richard Stallman says that our freedom to shop at Amazon is attacking our freedom to not shop at Amazon (or something)! When it comes to ebooks then no choice should be available at all! Digital copies should be made freely available to be shared and a tax should be collected from all internet users and then distributed to authors based on popularity.

    So instead of being able to voluntarily enter into an admittedly one sided and quite ridiculously restrictive agreement in exchange for a digital product that you want and that you enjoy, you would have to forcibly subsidise authors, regardless of whether you read their work or not.

    Damn freedom is messing with my freedom, clearly we need less freedom to preserve our freedom!

  3. Lyndon, I think the argument you make re the UN Rapporteur is correct but there are plenty of others making a less sophisticated argument that confuses "I would like X" with "X is a human right".

    I would also suggest that the biggest problem with the current crop of anti-file-sharing legislation is not that disconnection from the internet is a disproportionate punishment (although I think it is) but the presumption of guilt and the installation of ISPs as judge, jury, and executioner.

  4. Yes - I should have added that I found to eerie how closely we agree.

    I think we've spoken elsewhere at some stage about how I don't see any special reason for a libertarian to support a legal property-style right in intangibles.

    But I'm more inclined to settle for 'stop suing your fans'.

    [Can't resist responsing on Stallman... Tax aside - I note that's not his only solution - perhaps if you though about it in terms of selling yourself into slavery. Sure, you've got a right to - but it suggests something has gone wrong somewhere.]

  5. @Lyndon, you said, "I should have added that I found to eerie how closely we agree."

    Panic not: I'm not sure that I do.

  6. I think this is definitely a case where the market and the courts (under common law) would find a better resolution that the Government through new legislation.

    Serious breaches of intellectual property rights would be punished by the courts, the media giants would not pursue trivial breaches, and a free market would lead to more equitable distribution models for artists and consumers alike.

  7. If I get a book out of the library and it doesn't live up to the advertsing in the jacket, it has cost me nothing, as I have to pay the city rates anyway.

    If I buy the book from a bookstore and find it rubbish, I can always sell it at a 2nd-hand bookshop to get some money back.

    If I pay for a download and find it tripe, there is no way to get satisfaction. It would be illegal for me to give it away even, never mind sell it!

    No thankyou...


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.