College students are probably the most popular demographic target for accusations of media “piracy,” e-book sharing, and other purported forms of copyright infringement. Firstly, we consume far more digital media than the general population, a trend which steadily increases annually. The majority of college students also live on miserly budgets, with parents being a common primary source of financial support. Combine this with far superior technical literacy than that of the average adult, and higher education students become prime violators of existing laws that forbid the decrypting, viewing, or distribution of copyrighted media. Students at RPI are no exception; we download and share movies, books, television shows, and other content without discretion because it is faster, easier, and cheaper than navigating the minefield that is purchasing copyright-protected media. While some may ask whether or not the accusations of theft against our demographic are justified, I believe the important question is, are the current laws surrounding copyrighted works fair themselves?
In the world of brick and mortar that we physically inhabit, it’s simple for a person to judge where the boundaries of fair use begin and end. If a reader purchases a hardcover novel, he or she can read it, lend it, sell it, or douse it in gasoline and torch it if they are so inclined. The book has effectively become the reader’s property, a circumstance with which few people would take issue. However, the entire dynamic changes when the words of the novel are arranged into a sequence of zeroes and ones. Suddenly, the book can be duplicated and infinite amount of times with no direct loss to either the readers or the publishers. The situation is wholly similar with other types of copyrighted media, except that the pages are episodes and the publishers are production studios.
Industry lobbying cartels, like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) would have college students believe that sharing purchased content is an assault to creative professionals driven by frugality. The truth lies in the much-cited words of Gabe Newell, the renowned veteran of video game development, who quipped in a 2011 interview that, “piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem.” Maybe the answer for harmony between distributors and consumers indeed lies in better service, not lawsuits. When barriers like region locking, release delays, service outages, and device restrictions are removed from media, perhaps purchasers will be too satisfied to share illicitly. Maybe the removal of middleman distributors, like book publishers and production studios, is the answer to copyright disputes; when technology allows artists to disseminate content inexpensively to any student with a laptop and an internet connection, are third party brokers really necessary? In any case, the digital tides are changing inexorably in a direction that favors freedom of duplication over the power to control. Copyright aristocrats would do well to recall that the customer, not the seller, is always right.
—Graham Ramsey ’15