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David Lee King

Will Copyright Catch up?



A couple days ago, I had an interesting “teaching moment” with my 14 year old. That evening, we decided to watch a movie. Usually we either pick a streaming movie off of Netflix or rent something from iTunes (yes, and once in awhile borrow it from the library).

This time, we wanted to watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Guess what? It was nowhere to be found. Disney has a weird practice of placing a sort of moratorium on their movies – meaning, you can’t buy or rent some of them. Not even from the Disney Store.

Anyway … mad librarian searching pro that I am … I solved our “we want to watch a movie” problem pretty easily. I did a quick Google search for beauty and the beast full movie and found a rogue streaming version that we could watch. We watched it, it worked fine, and we had a fun evening.

Afterwards, the 14 year old was asking why the movie was so hard to find, so I explained what Disney does with their movies, and how someone had decided to burn their DVD and upload the movie to a file sharing site, probably to “solve the problem.” And the fact that that’s sorta illegal. And that watching the illegal stream is probably a bit shady, too.

Ultimately, I was able to explain to my daughter how those copyright rules worked great before she was born, but they don’t really work now. Copyright in today’s world is kind of like enforcing a “no chewing gum within city limits” law. Impossible at best, ridiculously silly to attempt to enforce at worst.

Why? Because the web is so easy to use, and because there are so many file sharing and multimedia streaming sites. I’ll guess that if we tried hard enough, we could have watched the whole movie in chunks on Youtube. People like uploading movies and TV shows in chunks on Youtube. Slightly inconvenient, but it works.

In my family’s movie-watching case, who broke the law? Did we by watching? Did someone else by burning and uploading? Did the file sharing site, by providing a place to store files? Did AT&T, by providing my DSL line? The answer is probably … yes.

Is copyright broken? The answer is also a resounding yes. Can it be fixed? Probably so. I’m certainly no copyright expert, but I know it’s not working. Will it catch up to the 21st century? What do you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Walt Crawford

    “sorta illegal” in this case is like “kinda pregnant.” And, while there are certainly problems with copyright law, basically saying “because it’s easy to break the law, the law’s worthless” is…well, suboptimal in my opinion.

  • http://pafa.net/ pollyalida

    An interesting conundrum in this instance, since the usual ‘someone is losing money’ argument doesn’t work. You were willing to pay, to buy, to rent, but Disney doesn’t make it available, so they’ve lost out to begin with. Of course they’d argue that they’re building up future demand through scarcity…. And yes, that doesn’t work in this digital economy.

  • Barry Trott

    I think that Walt captures my un-ease with this post. Just because you can access and watch a film online, “sorta illegal[ly],” does not mean it is right to do that. What was the lesson here?

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    I spelled out the lessons learned pretty well in my post. In general, they were about the speed of technology and all the catching up that laws need to do. As of now, copyright law simply isn’t enforceable on the web.

  • Susan Librarian

    Agree. Delayed gratification is also a valuable skill to teach/learn. In this case the movie was readily accessible via your public library and therefore a lawful copy fairly easy to obtain (even if you are put on a wait list). Conscientious civil disobedience is admirable – this was not it.

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