Bill Maher and SOPA: Intellectual Property and Academia

On January 20, Bill Maher talks about SOPA on his show and says that while at first he was excited to learn of its demise, he starting thinking about the moral dimension of online piracy, and how he lost a great deal of money from his film Religulous from people downloading the movie online.  Given his stance on other things, I found his comments surprising initially.  Then I heard that he admitted he has not read the bill.  I don’t feel like discussion SOPA in particular, so I am happy to leave that element on the conversation by simply saying, it is possible to be for copyright law reform or enforcement, without supporting SOPA.

That being said, as a student, I think this conversation brings up some interesting food for thought about intellectual property.  By no means am I an expert, nor have I done any empirical research or even informal questioning; I simple am using some of my experience and trying to make connections.  There seems to be a disconnect in terms of attitudes toward intellectual property in an academic setting.  Plagiarism, in terms of homework, papers, etc. is taken very seriously, and most professors follow photocopying rules for articles or book chapters, but there seems to be less concern for intellectual property that comes from entertainment.  Colleges and universities are connected to the internet through wires and wireless and students are often considered to be the largest problem when it comes to online piracy (though maybe they aren’t in actuality).

So I wonder to myself sometimes, what is the difference between plagiarism and illegally downloading music, television programs, and movies?

The obvious answer is that plagiarism is attempting to pass off someone else’s work as your own.  This is not true when it comes to online piracy.  So is there a better corollary to use? A closer example would probably be sharing of copyrighted material, such as downloading free electronic versions of textbooks or articles.  Like a pirated movie, someone at some point purchased something and then made a copy and distributed it beyond the terms of the sale.  From this example, two questions come to mind:

1. What does purchasing something actually get us?

2. Is this really a new problem, or has technology simply multiplied it exponentially?

If I buy a CD, what am I buying, the content of the disc? And am I allowed to make a back up of it? And if I have it on my computer, am I allowed to put it on my phone? How many times can I do that and still be following the rules.  I can sell the CD to a used CD store when I grow tired of listening to it, or I can donate it to a goodwill store or I can let a friend borrow it, or I can put it in a microwave and watch it crack (I don’t actually recommend the latter), just as a few examples.  The legal question is what constitutes fair use, and that’s a tough question.  When I buy a book on my kindle or music on iTunes, I still grumble because they are telling me what I can and can’t do with the content I purchase.  If I go to a bookstore, I can buy a paperback, read it, and give it to someone else.  I can’t do that as easily with my kindle, and I don’t think I can permanently gift an ebook to someone else, but even if I can, I doubt they would be allowed to pass it on as well.  Consumers and creators seem to be clashing over what is owned and what we can do with what we buy.  I don’t think this is a new problem at all.  Technology just makes it easier to copy things, multiply it without paying the creator, and distribute it widely.

This discussion would be incomplete, though I don’t really see this post as complete or exhaustive, without mentioning economics.  The process of developing, writing, producing, marketing, and selling something is time consuming and expensive.  Everyone involved in the process needs to be paid.  Consumers have limited dollars to spend, so some decide to avoid this process through piracy.  Technology is a double edged sword.  It makes it easier to capture, store, and share content, which is helpful when creating original content but also when it comes to sharing content, original or not.   People question the cost of buying an entire CD when they can listen to a song as many times as they wish online, legally, through sites like youtube, lastfm, or Pandora, but these very sites also are gateways to millions of potential customers.

This is an area where academics have a different reality when it comes to their work.  As a doctoral student who has had his first peer reviewed publication accepted, I am excited, but grounded in reality.  Publishing will be a part of my life, if I’m successful, from now on, and while publishing is important for job prospects and tenure applications, the truth is, I will not be getting paid to produce this content, at least not directly.  The journal that is publishing my article is not required to send me a dime, ever, and I will continue to pursue publishers, journals, etc for the privilege of disseminating some of my thoughts.  And my article about ethical issues in human cloning will never approach even the lowest entry on the Billboard 100 (or 500 or 10,000).  I’ll be lucky if several hundred people ever read it at all, and ecstatic if someone ever references it in a paper or publication.  So most academics, except maybe the internationally famous few who can make a living off of writing books that the public will scoop up, do not see writing as a way to pay the bills.

Therefore, it is extremely important to me that what little recognition is out there for my work, that I receive it.  I would be upset if someone used my thoughts without citing me.  The ideas, and how they can make people think about something in a new way, that is what I have and share.  Now to be fair, everyone involved in the process of creating entertainment content of course deserves credit for their work, I would never argue otherwise, but from an academic standpoint there can be jealousy because of the larger audience and the financial compensation there is for creating that content (although that compensation varies tremendously and obviously many academics are better off than people in other fields).  What I am saying, is that unlike Bill Maher, there is a small part of me that would not mind people getting my work for free, because I don’t make anything from it.  The journal might feel different, but the larger the audience I have, the better.

I think in the end, academia has a particular worldview if you will.  Information is readily available, through the internet, libraries, etc.  And the actual cost of these things is often hidden.  One of the institutions I attended allotted students $200 a year in free printing at the school’s computer labs.  Of course it wasn’t really free; it was included in our fees and it was not well publicized.  We are supposed to do our work, and be as informed as we can.  The hard work that others have done is essential for our task, and we are encouraged to not leave stones unturned.  And we want our work to be read, be seen as thoughtful and life changing. In such a culture, it can be easy to see why people have little problem sharing their entertainment, especially if it isn’t original content.  If I let people borrow notes that I took for class or a textbook so they can read a chapter, why wouldn’t I consider lending them a CD or a DVD? Technology makes doing all of this easier.

There are lots of questions to consider, but I do believe that large scale piracy is stealing.  I have not yet spent enough time thinking about things to have a solid opinion on where I stand regarding small scale share, particularly of music.  Were the mix tapes that people made in the past stealing? Copying your entire CD library into digital format and then letting everyone on the internet have it for free is a problem, but if I really like a song and want to share it with someone, should these two things be treated the same way? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t make it right either.

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