Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Copyright Is Dead, Long Live the Pirates

Yesterday I attended Copyright Is Dead, Long Live the Pirates. I wasn’t seeking longevity, but rather sat as an audience member at this Wheeler Centre run debate hosted at Melbourne Town Hall. For what it’s worth, I got my ticket to the event through EFA, where I am a lifetime member.
The event's format was pretty straight forward: three debaters on each side try to convince the audience for and against the proposition at hand, namely whether copyright is dead. At the end of proceedings the audience is asked to vote for the winner, and a comparison is made to the audience's opinion upon entery. Given the subject matter I think it is pretty obvious which side I’m on; it was also pretty obvious nothing short of a miracle could sway me to embrace copyright. And it doesn’t take a Richard Dawkins to know that by their unnatural nature, miracles cannot happen, really.

Speaking for the pro piracy side, if I can refer to it this way, were Suelette Dreyfus, Simon Groth and Angela Daly. Dreyfus, an author made famous by a book about hacking that involved Julian Assange, started proceedings by telling us how putting copies of her book online boosted her sales by order of magnitude from the mildly successful 10,000 she sold prior to that. In effect, she repeated a point Cory Doctorow often makes, which states an artist’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy.
I will not delve further into the pirate’s side of the arguments; these are all things I have discussed here before. I will, however, confess to Daly being my favourite speaker. It wasn’t only her charming accent – probably the best I’ve ever heard, both melodic and clear – but rather her saying exactly what I would have said were I in her position. Only she said it much more eloquently than I ever could. Then again, being that Daly is an EFA board member, similarities of opinions and approaches are only to be expected.

What hit the most last night was the sheer blandness of the arguments coming from the other side, the pro copyright people. Frankly, I think I could have done a better job than them at explaining copyright’s benefits. Regardless, they were disengaged, they failed to engage, and their arguments were often pathetic.
Speaking first for his side was Michael Fraser. His approach was academic in the bad sense of the word, the one that made me dislike uni: he was talking slogans and quoting laws, unable to explain how these actually apply to the message he was trying to convey concerning copyright’s viability. Gems included "Copyright is a foundation for freedom of expression", a "basic human right" without which "a creator is imprisoned". Wait, it goes on: "Without copyright, independent creation is impossible”; because we know God had to have copyright by his side when he wrote the Bible.
Moving on, “no one is above the law. Negating copyright is negating the very foundation our civilisation is based on”.  Fraser finally stepped away from the realm of the cliché when he asked why we respect the rights of companies such as Google to make money, but disrespect the rights of the artist; he did, however, fail to note that this artist of his is the only member of the free market asking for special privilege for monopoly through this thing called copyright
Speaking next for copyrights was Lori Flesker. Flesker claimed to be disgusted by pirates, which means she is disgusted by the majority of the Australian public: virtually everyone is a pirate today, even if they don’t know they are, and with 37% of the adult population admitting to piracy (see here) I suggest she wears a gas mask. Yes, I have such problems as well; I am not that happy with the majority of Australians choosing Tony Abbott as their Prime Minister. However, there are reasons that made people vote the way they did, just like there are reasons why people pirate; people are not inherently disgusting.
Flesker moved on claims of dubious truthfulness. For example, she claimed rumours concerning pirates spending money on contents are a myth, and that she has the research to prove her claim. Regardless of it only taking one pirate buying contents to prove her wrong, here’s evidence indicating that not only do pirates pay for contents, they pay more than the rest of the public. Flesker then expressed surprise at people not resorting to legal alternatives, and even quoted Foxtel’s new Presto service as an example. She forgot to mention Presto is yet unavailable (or are we talking biblical miracles here, with the service solving piracy before it even started?). She also neglected to mention other aspects, such as Presto charging $25 a month for a service vastly inferior to the USA Netflix’ $8, or that Foxtel is directly responsible for cutting off most legal alternatives for downloading in Australia (including Apple’s offering of Game of Thrones episodes).
Countering the proposition that artists actually benefit from piracy, Flesker brought the example of Thom Yorke removing his music off Spotify in protest for the poor money they give the artists. I agree, Spotify and most of the other streaming services often abuse the artists; but since Spotify works well within the framework of copyrights, what does that have to do with piracy? Surely the blame is shared with record companies giving artists’ rights away to Spotify?
Last, but not least, Flesker claimed that copyright is not that bad to live with. Does anybody here know someone who has been jailed because of copyright, she asked. Well, yes, I do: how about Kim Dotcom? Or Aaron Swartz? But most importantly, is she seriously suggesting copyright’s merit by virtue of the fact it is yet to put someone we care for in jail?
The final pro copyright presenter was Elmo Keep. Hers was a rather bizarre affair: complaining as she did against the artist being robbed of well deserved income, she directed most of her criticism towards big companies like Apple and Amazon who took over the markets for music and books. Failing to notice how artists were shafted well before Apple and Amazon came along (Dreyfus, for example, quoted receiving $1 off every $20 book she sold), Keep expressed opinions that would put her well within the framework of the Pirate Party: it is only because of the narrow vision of the copyright industry and its insistence on DRM that these particular two villains gained the power they did.
Living up to her side’s standards, Keep did not refrain from clichés. She claimed there won't be any creation without copyright and that those claiming otherwise are anarchists or fools; and she referred to piracy as outright theft, which – as the lawyers on her side should tell her – is outright wrong.

Given proceedings, audience votes were hardly a surprise. Whereas at the doors the audience polled at 39% for piracy, 36% for copyright and the rest undecided, the final results were an “overwhelming” win for piracy. Yours truly apologises for not getting the actual final figures.
No, I do not think much of this vote. To be completely honest, in some respects I do not even want to see copyright dead: I do not want to see others claim ownership of stuff I have created, for example. Pirate Party policies do not call for the killing of copyright, either. Regardless, it is clear the copyright legislation we have today is broken in dire need of repair.
I would say it is also clear salvation will not come from Australia, being the minor league player it is. I concur with Rick Falkvinge who sees salvation coming from Europe. Either that or from the inevitable collapse of the financially overstretched USA (as discussed here), only that in that particular case we will have plenty of other things to worry about.

At the personal level, live tweeting of last night's event with the support of Asher Wolf and Brendan Molloy meant I now have several new Twitter followers, including some big names. While I do not think this would make me a candidate for the position of Apple’s next CEO, the whole affair did give me a glimpse of the personal price I have been paying for the pleasures of parenthood.
The only reason I was able to attend Copyright Is Dead is my wife and son leaving me home alone to go on an overseas trip. Upon their return, just a week away, I’ll be back to my normal inglorious child caring routine. While it would mean no more Copyright Is Dead nights for me, it will not mean I will stop standing up for what I consider right.

Image by Gary Denham, Creative Commons license

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