Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rambling Thoughts on Pirates, Relatives and Stephen Foster

Today is the last day of a decade and I find myself thinking once again about one of the thorny issues of our age: copyright, piracy and the ongoing impact of the digital revolution.

Visiting relatives last week I picked their child's Nintendo DS. Turning it on I was surprised to see a menu of games appear including a dozen or more of the best selling titles. A quick look at the back of the console revealed an adapter cartridge carrying a removable flash memory card. I was surprised. The child's parents are find upstanding moral people, they are not particularly technically competent. Yet they had acquired and given their six year old some €500 worth of stolen technology.

Leaving aside the morality of piracy it is not hard to see that there is considerable economic value in this type of adapter. Not only is it a convenient way of carrying your game collection but it solves the issue of kids losing their individual game cartridges. My relatives paid money for the device and its contents. The very fact that these non-tech savvy folks had acquired such a device suggests a ubiquity I had not previously suspected and makes me think that these devices are a significant factor in boosting Nintendo's console sales. Of course none of this economic value returns to the developers of games.

Coincidentally I was reading about the nineteenth century American songwriter Stephen Foster. It is no exaggeration to say that if Stephen was alive today he would be a wealthy man just on revenues from  classics such as "Hard Times", "Beautiful Dreamer" and  "My old Kentucky Home".  He lived however in a time before the establishment of strong copyright and royalty laws. Despite being the pre-eminent songwriter of his age he died in penury at the age of 37 with a grand fortune (coincidentally) of only 37 cents.

Copyright is not itself a God given right - it is an invention of man intended to  stimulate the creation of original works by providing a reward to their creators. In giving rights to creators copyright atificially restricts the rights of consumers. It is not a new thing that otherwise law abiding consumers have balked at these restrictions and have sough to bypass them perhaps making handwritten copies of sheet music or cassette tape recordings of their favourite songs. Is this morally wrong?  If a consumer makes a copy of a work that they wouldn't otherwise have paid for then there is no actual loss involved. On the other hand as poor Stephen Foster discovered the widespread availability of pirated copies of works definitely reduces the earnings potential of creators.

In the past poor quality analog copies were generally inferior to officially produced copies. This provided a natural barrier to piracy but also gave tremenduous power to the distributors of official copies of copyrighted works. The digital revolution has made it easy for just about anyone to produce perfect copies and this has greatly reduced the power of distributors. There has even been suggestions it will eventually mean the demise of content distribution as consumers can acess material directly from creators without the need for a middle man. No wonder then that it is the distributors of music, of games and of films have been at the forefront of he fight against digital piracy. Can they put off the inevitable though? Will distribution as we know it still exist in another decade. Does distribution still have a role in the dew digital age ? Could Google become the only distribution channel we need?

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