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The Future of Global Copyrights


Written by Stephen Sharon
Posted: December 11, 2009 @ 2:47 pm
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Every modern country has copyright laws of some sort in place. The rationale behind them all is to motivate the creation of future works and to protect the works themselves after their creation. In our globally connected world it seems natural to desire a unified system of worldwide laws in every legal field, but particularly for copyrights because articles, music, and movies are distributed instantly over the Internet on a daily basis.

The notion of a worldwide law isn’t unheard of, but in reality treaties and conventions are the only practical way to have any uniformity across borders. For example, the Berne Convention and the Buenos Aires Convention provide for equivalent copyright protection for domestic and foreign authors and artists in the European Union and South American countries respectively.

At this point one might think that we are moving in the right direction and countries are compromising appropriately. The problem only partially lies with the governments though, and surprisingly the remaining portion of blame isn’t the fault of pirates. The reason global copyrights won’t happen is because of organizations and companies like the RIAA, CRIA, and Microsoft.

As piracy of music, movies and software has increased the people whose rights have been violated have fought back in three main ways. In the United States rights holders have opted for litigation, in Canada organizations have pushed the government for special taxes, and in China companies like Microsoft have drastically lowered the prices for their software. In other words conventions sound nice on paper, but aren’t the holy grail by any stretch.

In fact, the only thing in common amongst the three plans is that they all favor continued copyright violations and therefore digital pirates. Allow me to explain: In China, Microsoft has been forced to sell its products for a fraction of their cost because they want to compete with the prices that local pirates have to offer. The message this sends is that piracy is tolerated by the government and acceptable to the largest software company in the world. Rather than attempt to legally fight for its rights or use technical solutions to combat piracy, Microsoft caved in. This has worked modestly well for Microsoft in China and so I don’t blame them, but the plan is shortsighted and will never be sustainable if every country develops the percentage of software pirates that China has. Microsoft is trying to curb the rampant piracy of its software by underselling, or at least competing with, pirates, but this only treats the symptoms and not the underlying cause of the problem.

On the other side of the globe, Canada’s response to widespread music sharing was to tax recordable media. Honest consumer or not, everyone pays and everyone gets to copy (for private use) all of their music legally. This ignores the 5% of artists not part of the CRIA as well as the people who didn’t previously illegally share music. The bottom line is that at the behest of one powerful organization Canada has accepted a bizarre relationship where certain laws under specific circumstances are legally breakable. More importantly a new generation is growing up that can legally backup their own music, but only in their own country. This unique right inhibits the future adoption of a universal copyright law.

Unlike Canada and China, the United States doesn’t encourage piracy, but it also isn’t working towards a sustainable global solution. The perception of the RIAA has shifted from being a supporter of music consumers and national facilitator, publicist, and distributor of music to being almost universally despised as greedy and unnecessary. The RIAA has been alienating most of its customers just as the need for organizations like it fades by the day. Most Americans believe that stealing music is wrong and that artists should be properly compensated, but suing every man, woman, and child for downloading music is a sign of desperation and has failed miserably to slow illegal downloads. Today, the largest retailer of music in the United States is Apple’s iTunes music store, an entirely digital service that no longer uses digital rights management. Had Apple not stepped in to provide a legal alternative to services like the original Napster and bit torrent trackers the RIAA would still be suing people and piracy would still be increasing exponentially.

This idea cannot be better stated than it already has been by Nate Anderson. In
Record labels keep blaming P2P, but it’s a hard sell Anderson, of Ars Technica, quotes copyright attorney and author of Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, William Patry:

The problems in the Copyright Wars are not caused by technologies or by consumers acting badly, and they cannot therefore be solved by laws, and certainly not by more draconian laws. The problems—such as the decline in sales of CDs and DVDs—are the result of the copyright industries’ many and considerable failures to focus on satisfying consumers’ desires as opposed to stifling those desires out of a woefully misguided view that copyright equals control and that control equals profits.

Although I think laws can solve some of the problems, I think they need to be consistently enforced and more reasonable.

Taken together we see one country where copyrights are highly valued and companies do not hesitate to litigate (USA), another country where companies bully the government rather than the people actually responsible (Canada), and lastly a country where companies are forced to take matters into their own hands (China). The Berne Convention, and all similar conventions, have not even begun to solve this crisis. Copyright infringement continues to thrive and even if the conventions provided for penalties or coordinated litigation, piracy would continue because some countries, like China, refuse to participate in enforcement. The Internet has brought the corners of the world closer together, but deep rooted cultural differences prevent a unified global copyright solution. The success of the iTunes store conclusively proves that when companies listen to and respond to consumer’s wishes people will pay for, rather than steal, content.

We want consistency. It pains us to see our intellectual property ripped off in front of our faces, but even more so when it is done overseas and we feel powerless to stop the infringement. We have made small steps toward achieving some level of consistency, but looking at the big picture we are not heading down the right path. Enforcement is not the responsibility of large companies; it is the job of the civil and criminal legal systems to prosecute offenders. This answer is flawed as well if companies only sue offenders without recognizing why the offenses took place and how they can be avoided. Governments have failed on a global scale to take intellectual property rights seriously and the result has been different in each country based on local culture. If we ever want to see a successful global copyright scheme we first need reasonable personal fair use exemptions and then to prosecute persistent violators. Playing games with taxes on recordable media, competing with pirates, and suing in-discriminatorily has failed. Admitting this failure is a necessary first step to seeing the end of widespread copyright infringement.

About the Author

Stephen Sharon is a graduate of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip, NY. He successfully passed both the NY and NJ bars during the Summer of 2009, and his admission to practice in NY and NJ is pending.

Stephen is the author of “Do Students Turn Over Their Rights When They Turn In Their Papers? A Case Study of Turnitin.com,” which will be published in the Touro Law Review. This article was awarded First Place, in the Nathan Burkan Memorial Competition Sponsored by ASCAP. For more information please visit his Linked In profile and visit him on Twitter.


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4 comments
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  1. “…and to protect the works themselves”

    I hate to sound like a zealot, because I’m really not and actually support copyright, but that phrase is really annoying. The works don’t need to be protected. War and Peace isn’t going to be hurt because somebody reads an illegal copy of it. What you meant to say is that the people who created the works need to be protected. This is basic grammar and usually isn’t tolerated well outside of buzzwords and catchphrases. Nobody wants to say “and to protect the artists” because “the works” sounds better. I don’t have perfect grammar so please don’t think I am trying to be the grammar police, but that particular meme has gotten far more mileage than it deserves.

    I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone have the copyright issue figured out pretty well. They are the creators of South Park, a TV satire cartoon that shows on Comedy Central. They never really became jaded and lost their original sense of what it means to be an artists. When just starting out, most artists struggle to give their creations away for free and are happy when anybody reads/listens/watches their works. The real irony begins if they are one of the lucky few who obtains a wide audience and high demand. Instead of spending all their time trying to get people to enjoy their works, they spend all their time tying to get people to stop, unless they have paid of course. A few hundred thousand people turns something that was original a sign of appreciation into thievery and crime.

    The South Park crew makes all their material available free on the internet. They realized that other people were putting their material online and that lots of people were watching it and that it was creating demand for watching the show on Comedy Central where they make most of their money. Even if they stopped making money, they said they were glad that people still wanted to watch after all those years. Instead of trying to shut those people down, they said go ahead and later did a more professional job of giving it away online. Contrast this with Seth Macfarlane and his crew who strictly enforce IP on Family Guy and their other shows.

    I have much more respect for Trey Parker and Matt Stone than I do for Seth McFarlane. I know where my money goes when I buy merchandise and I bet you can guess as well.

    As far as Microsoft is concerned you literally have to pay me to use their shitty software because I wont use it unless I am at work. I wish people in China would stop stealing their software, not because it hurts Microsoft, but because they are using inferior software when free alternatives are available.

    I decided to ditch the POP name since I post regularly and I’m not usually pissed off, but feel free to continue referring to me as POP if you want.

  2. [...] at IP Watchdog, Stephon Sharon discusses the future of global copyrights. Sharon looks at the challenging issues presented by an increasingly global, networked economy. What [...]

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  4. This ignores the 5% of artists not part of the CRIA

    Oh man, you really don’t have your facts right. No artists are members of CRIA, it’s an industry trade group consisting of the big four record labels and companies who specialize in producing sound recordings. Artists need not apply – and for that matter are not welcome. However the CRIA has nothing to do with the CD Levy.

    SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) is the organization you have to be a member of to collect on the CD Levy. The fee to join is $50.00 Canadian, which isn’t very much, and it’s a one time fee.

    But 95% of artists are not members of SOCAN. Quite frankly, SOCAN is set up to benefit the big name acts. If you are Anne Murray, or Avril Lavigne, you can do well out of the CD Levy. If you are Downtown Freddie Brown, or Urban Tapestry, well, you don’t matter to SOCAN. They don’t care about you, though they make a lot of noise (like the RIAA and CRIA) claiming that they do.

    Independent artists get nailed badly by this. The CD Levy is based on reported sales by the CRIA. Since independent artists usually sell direct, avoiding the Big Four labels, their sales are not recorded. And since a lot of them do their own CD mastering, they pay the levy when they buy CDs to produce their own material.

    And guess what – SOCAN doesn’t care. There is a method set up so you can buy Levy exempt media, however it has been setup in such a way, that it’s almost impossible to qualify.

    I should mention, that my wife is an independent artist, and I have a definite axe to grind. I suggest that you check my information because of this, but it is accurate.