Making Copies

13 02 2010

One of my favorite recurring skits on Saturday Night Live in the early-1990s was the one featuring a geeky, socially-inept Rob Schneider “making copies.” Little did they know back then that making copies would one day become a very real problem for all of us, because the digital environment that lay just a few years ahead made it child’s play for anyone with a computer to replicate just about anything that resembles intellectual property.

Perhaps the issue that got the most attention (and is still a problem today) is that of illegal music file sharing (otherwise known as music piracy). Not only is it ridiculously simple to copy CDs onto computers (and hence make duplicates for friends), the internet made it possible for us to make copies for the whole planet. Napster became synonymous with free music; so prominent did this practice become that normally law-abiding citizens did not even see file sharing or CD burning as illegal (and hence) unethical) activities.

If the technology permits it, then it must be OK, right?

The RIAA didn’t see it that way, and proceeded to sue everyone from 8-year-old girls to grandmothers.

But even the advent of iTunes and legal music downloads has not stanched the flow of stolen property. Illegal file sharing still goes on; it is the undocumented illegal alien of the internet world. Worse yet, it is often perpetrated by people who do know even know they are breaking the law. Making matters even worse, one could argue they are aided and abetted by the very technology that has also turned them all into thieves.

And that is precisely why my colleagues and I at GNU MediaLab have been tasked with creating a copyright policy for our university. You see, while the original round of music theft got its big push on university campuses, the ivory towers of academe are still a big player in more recent variations on these crimes.

I am speaking of the seemingly innocent use of copyrighted material for allegedly academic purposes, which then finds its way online. And often on YouTube.

Perhaps the most common illegal activity is the practice of simply adding a background audio track to a home movie (e.g., a class project). No one would argue that the audio track can make a short video infinitely more tolerable to view, but if that background track is owned by someone else, then you have broken the law.

To be sure, there is a lot of leeway in academia regarding Fair Use of copyrighted material, as long as it is done behind the locked doors of the institution. Once it gets posted to YouTube, all bets are off. And suddenly you have shoplifted, your purloined pop tune all the evidence the RIAA might need to haul you to court.

As well as create lots of trouble for the university.

This is a mine field for anyone to navigate, but it is one that must be swept clear of flash points. I will not argue that YouTube is entertaining precisely because so many people have done creative things with other people’s stuff, but that does not make it legal. And it is no better, no worse than those creepy “mix tapes” I once made for friends 30 years ago, ostensibly sharing my exquisite musical tastes. It’s wrong. It’s illegal. And we’ve got to educate as we eradicate.

Buzz kill? Yeah, many will say so, but I wouldn’t like it you stole this blog and put your name on it, either. Could you do it? Yep. It would only take you a second to click-drag-copy and then paste it elsewhere.

But you wouldn’t do that, right? Rob Schneider should have had it so easy.

Dr “Whatever Happened To Him Anyway?” Gerlich

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