“I Fought The Law and The Law Won”

July 13, 2009


I don’t buy newspapers very often these days. But back in May I happened to get the Observer on a day when it was publishing its Music monthly supplement.

I was very interested in the “Walking The Plank” feature inside it (see picture above). I wasn’t able to find this feature on the Observer’s website so I’ve reproduced it above (which is an irony in itself).

“Walking The Plank” looks at the history of five music file sharing sites. In case you can’t read the text above here’s what it says in the final box at the bottom of each column.

Napster: Shut down by courts. Bought by Bertlesmann for $8 million and relaunched as legal, subscription based service…

Limewire: One year after opening a store allowing people to pay fro tracks, the now legits site claims 70 million unique users per month.

Grokster: Shuts down five months after the Supreme Court rules it can be sued for misuse of its file sharing software.

Pirate Bay: Convicted of promnoting copyright infringement. The founders and their buisness partners aare sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay £2.4 milllion…

Oink’s Pink: Alan Ellis was due to appear at Teeside crown court on charges of conspiracy to defraud…

Like a lot of people when I first came across ideas around digital media and how it was changing notions of copyright I got rather excited (the link is to my internal BBC blog of the time so you won’t be able to read it unless you’re inside the BBC firewall). Reading that post again now makes me realise how naive I was. Particularly in the light of what’s actually happened in the past three years.

When Pirate Bay lost their court case there was a lot of bold rhetoric about them fighting the system (“we can’t pay”). But from the look of this story they’ve gone legal, and may have to pay.

Things have value as long as human beings are prepared to assign value to them and pay for them. As long as they are prepared to pay for things, laws around ownership of those things will still exist. And it doesn’t matter if you disagree with a law, if it’s the law then in the end you have to obey it or face the consequences.

These days I am pretty sceptical of statements like “data wants to be free”. This is an example of what I was taught at school as “the pathetic fallacy” – the tendency of human beings to think that inanimate objects and other living things have the same “feelings” as human beings do. Human beings may or may not want to be “free” (whatever that means), but code doesn’t have feelings or aspirations.

It is true that the nature of digital media means that its easier for some people to do certain things (like copying). But just because they can, doesn’t make those things right or even useful.

Virtual world Second Life was the centre of a copyright dispute. None of Second Life is “real”. Yet people felt ownership of the things they made there and objected to other people “ripping them off”.

People make rules, then break them, then make them again. And it’s the rule makers who have the power. In cyberspace as much as anywhere else.


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