How to Respond to Disagreeable Laws

So I’ve been plowing through an amazing book the last couple of days: Tartleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture. It’s a stellar multidisciplinary examination–Gillespie is a communication professor, but he purposefully pulls from other places too–into the phenomenon of copyright owners and media manufacturers building technical locks into music, movies, and TV.

He’s very convincing about the importance of these issues (or maybe I’ve just been reading so much stuff like this lately that I’m convincing myself by my reading choices). One example: he writes about how what I do with a CD is regulated by copyright law that protects the music’s creators and distributors, but law that is balanced toward my end by fair use. In other words, it’s a violation of copyright for me to make a copy of the CD to give to a friend, but because of fair use, it’s not not illegal for me to sample parts of the CD for a creative new use–especially if that use isn’t going to make me money, and if I don’t use a lot of the original.¬† But technological, built-into-the-system protections of copyright–like digital rights management on mp3s and codes that only let licensed DVD players play the DVDs distributed by major manufacturers–don’t give me that ability to use my fair use. I’m technologically kept from doing many things that could legally be perfectly legitimate. And that’s, well, not fair.

Gillespie points out that this expands the power of law in wild new directions. Suddenly, “law”–the ability to do something or not–is written not by elected officials who (at least in name) are supposed to have the public’s interest at heart. Now “law” is written by manufacturers and content creators–people who have their own monetary interests most at heart.

So, my real point: at what point, if any, do philosophical problems with practices (like built-in copy protection) give me an ethical, defendable reason to break laws? And which laws–just the DMCA, which says I can’t break past technological barriers, or the wider culturally harmful copyright laws too?

For a long time now–since my 1999 downloading spree with first-gen Napster–I haven’t been a music downloader. I don’t copy CDs I borrow from friends or from the library, unless it’s individual tracks to share with others on mix CDs. (I don’t have a problem with sharing mixes, by the way. I think that the act of sharing music makes others want to buy it.) But lately, I can feel that itch of frustration with music practices that makes me want to frustrate the DRM-loving folks who take fair use away from common folks, giving it only to those who are savvy enough to get past technological fences.

But even more, I don’t want to act out of greed. So for now, unless I’m legitimately exercising my fair use–which I’m going to do a friggin boatload of–I’m not going to grab music for free. But that itch to rebel is still there….

Note 1: the “to download or not to download” question becomes increasingly moot, of course, with so many awesome online tools to make listening to music easier. Sites like Pandora, Lala, and most recently (and probably least sanctioned legally) Fizy give me enough listening joy that I’ve never really had to consider cracking open Limewire and grabbing free yumminess illegally.

Note 2: I think it’s hilarious how Gillespie’s blog looks remarkably like mine. Neat! . . . I think?

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1 Comment

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One response to “How to Respond to Disagreeable Laws

  1. Thanks for this! Iíve been looking all over the internet for this.

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