Online copyright laws are becoming increasingly complex, confusing the public and resulting in unintentional legal violations.
Copyright law is intricate, and even lawyers and lawmakers argue over how to apply it. If industry experts can barely agree on what the laws are, how can the public be expected to adhere to laws they don’t understand and might not even be aware of?
The simple answer: they can’t. Users must navigate tricky laws and confusing loopholes, facing penalties if found in violation. The result is that the simplest of online activity can result in copyright infringement, whether it’s watching a YouTube video or downloading a BitTorrent file for a must-see TV show.
YouTube, for instance, has millions of videos of just about any song a user could ever want to listen to. Even though the videos can’t be stored in MP3 format, they can still be bookmarked and revisited. Record labels constantly pull copyrighted materials from the service, but many files garner thousands or millions of views before being yanked from the service.
Beyond music, trying to watch TV on the Internet can also create copyright violations with steep penalties. Users caught downloading a television episode can lose Internet service, pay a fine, or even incur jail time, depending on how big the offense is. But making a mix tape or CD of favorite songs as a party favor and distributing it to 25 friends, while technically illegal, is a widely tolerated practice.
Posting digital files of those songs online to share with friends is legally prohibited, and carries fines similar to those listed above. Users can just give friends the password to Amazon accounts, giving them access to Cloud drives and all the media stored on it.
Copyright issues become even more convoluted when dealing with premium cable subscriptions and streaming services. Derek Bambauer, a professor of internet law and intellectual property in New York City, touches on the complex situations that result when cable companies withhold some of their choice properties from video streaming.
“If you want to see Game of Thrones [and I do], your options are 1. subscribe to cable plus HBO, or 2. pirate,” said Bambauer. “I think the series rocks, but I’m not paying $100 a month for it… HBO charges not only for the content, but bundles it with one particular delivery medium.”
Many shows and movies are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, but Game of Thrones isn’t one of them, leaving an eager viewer with few options. HBO service is not available without purchasing a cable channel package, and the costs can add up quickly, and “if that medium is unavailable to you, or unaffordable, you’re out of luck. Unless, of course, you have broadband, and can BitTorrent,” Bambauer continues.
But using BitTorrent, even when encrypted, is illegal, as is removing Digital Rights Management tags in music files, failing to get permission from original sources when creating a derivative work, or using commercial software without paying for it.
The result is a potential minefield of violations for an entertainment industry struggling with how to effectively implement copyright laws. The entertainment business is taking aggressive action to fight piracy, but its difficulty adjusting projects mixed messages to the public and may even be sparking more violations with stringent actions.
The music industry, with the rapid rise of Apple’s iTunes, reluctantly came to embrace online technology, discouraging illegal file sharing. ITunes did help stem the tide of copyright violation among music consumers, but record labels still wrestle with issues around online storage and cloud services, recently supporting high-profile shutdown of services like MegaUpload.
The movie industry hasn’t fared as well with the transition, struggling to form content deals with streaming sites like Netflix, fighting against online piracy with gusto, and supporting controversial bills like the Stop Online Privacy Act to circumvent it.
Yet the industry refuses to stop “windowing” movies, meaning buzzed-about films début in the U.S., say, months before they appear in Europe, leading frustrated viewers to obtain the movies illegally and leading critics to blame Hollywood itself for the growing rates of movie piracy.
Meanwhile, the television industry lies somewhere in the middle. Networks successfully cater to the social networking crowd with live chats, Facebook fan pages and instant viewer feedback. But cable companies are struggling to find a way to compete with streaming services and online TV sites like Hulu.
As mobile technology becomes more prevalent, consumers want immediate access to media on their tablets and smartphones. With so many people breaking laws whether they know it or not, and few resources that offer clear definitions of copyright laws to consumers, the fight against copyright infringement could ultimately be a losing battle as consumer desire and technology outpace the ability of the industry to adapt.