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Deemed guilty of copyright infringement

No, I have not been. But someone I don't know is probably being deemed guilty of copyright infringement this very moment, as you read this blog.

This post came about from a rather wild reaction on Google Plus. As might have been hammered into your skulls As you may have guessed from reading the previous n posts, I follow a number of photographers whose work I enjoy on Plus. Recently, there was a frenzied reaction amongst a large number of them about a guy from I-don't-know-where stealing their photographs. What with frenzied requests to Google to take down his profile, with calling him a thief, I felt like the poor guy was in a mob about to lynch him. Don't get me wrong, I'm not sympathising with him, I'm merely stating the almost animal like tendencies of all the civilized folk when they noticed a relatively minor infringement of their copyright.

Why minor, you may ask? Well, the person uploaded extremely small prints, the type you'd get from screenshots, left the watermarks on, et cetera. Now, obviously, if the person wanted to steal the photographs, I doubt he would have left the watermarks on. His behaviour could be explained in extremely simple terms, he wanted to create an album of great photographs that he admired, and he was not aware of the implications of doing so.

Yet, the frenzy surrounding this innocuous mistake was amazing. One would think that this person had killed the president, or something like that. This makes me wonder, was it by accident that this incident occurred days after I articulated my views on intellectual property? Or are we living in an age where we may not do anything without stepping on someone's rights?

The trouble with the digital medium is that it is easily reproducible, not like the print medium of yesteryear, where copying was much more involved. I doubt that anyone in their right state of mind would photocopy entire books to share them, the way ebooks are shared today. But in the age gone by, you could lend a book to a friend, give him a picture you admired, or a tape containing music from your favourite band. This was because when you did so, you were not generating a copy. Additionally, you'd probably share with a limited number of friends. Now, with the digital age, every time you email a copy of your ebook to a friend, you are creating a copy. With 10000 friends on the internet, you'd guess that people will want to protect their copyright as far as they can go. Apparently, ugly watermarks are not sufficient. Even though those watermarks fetch more customers, still, you need to pay to advertise my art. Something similar to the fashion world, right?

But then, the very nature of the internet is such that you cannot protect content. The internet is an architecture meant for sharing information. It was developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, to easily share data generated by the Large Hadron Collider. The very same photographers who reacted so strongly to the person who copied those photographs uploaded them on the same sharing service, with full awareness of their actions. Are you saying that they never wanted them to be shared with the world? Moreover, if someone shares material, then he is putting his reputation at stake to show his faith in your work, isn't it?

Whenever I buy anything, I expect to get a tangible copy. Unfortunately, with electronic copies, I don't get anything in my hand, all I get is a sequence of ones and zeros. If I were to write PI to all it's digits in binary, I would get a sequence of zeros and ones. The file that I would receive would be just a subsequence of this one large sequence. Yet, PI has existed ever since the universe. Is it fair for anyone to charge me for a subsequence taken from this fundamental constant of the world? At the same time, while it costs me nothing to make a copy, neither does it cost the person who licenses a copy to me. If I had a photograph framed on the wall, I could lend it to my friends, but I cannot do so in the newer medium. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? (A post on DRMs ought to be written soon.)

A riskier prospect is of me being involved in such a situation. It's not implausible. After all, reproduction of any part of copyrighted material is an offence. Whenever I share a link on Plus, Google places a preview of the website along with the link. Technically, this is copyright infringement. The same thing happens with Facebook. The Facebook Like button's license agreement allows Facebook to access copyrighted material in any form from your website, even when you have removed the button. So, the creators of Facebook are in the clear. But you are not!

I earlier had posted how intellectual property laws were being used as a sword to attack competition. Fact is, probably over half the population in the world is on the wrong side of the law, just because the law has not been adapted to suit the newer methods of sharing information. If copyright is concerned only with making copies, I could easily hotlink someone's work onto my website. For a majority of the non-geek audience of my website, they would probably think that this is my work. Unethical use of someone else's work, but not a copyright infringement. Dare you call me a thief!

Yet, as I write this post, my anger is not really directed to the people who are angry about their work being misused. I'm angry at the animalism shown when they go around like a pack of lions attacking one poor rabbit. The rabbit would probably never know what hit it.

Seems like we have a lot to learn about decent behaviour from the animal world.

I leave you with this talk by Lawrence Lessig at TED on how creativity is being strangled by the law.


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