Sunday, September 12, 2004

Copyright vs. The Laws of Physics

Copyright is concerned with protecting the rights of the authors of creative works. I'll expand on this later, but it's really about
  1. Attribution (who wrote it),
  2. Duplication (copying),
  3. Distribution (publishing), and
  4. Derivative Works.
The digital era, through the DMCA and "friends", has introduced a fifth element to the discussion:
  1. Authorized Access.
The issue of who had authorized access to a protected work really didn't begin until we started having Satellite TV. This is where the problems began. Companies like DirecTV may be bombarding every house in the country with their satellite signals, but the only people who are supposed to watch them are the customers who have paid-up subscriptions.

Early Satellite TV systems were analog, and customers didn't have the equipment to copy and redistribute the DirecTV signal they were receiving. The biggest problem for Satellite TV, both then and now, is unauthorized reception.

Now that everything is digital, the problem for copyright holders has gotten much much worse. Every person with an Internet connection is a potential publisher.

Going Digital, and Failing to Cope...

What I think the copyright industry has failed to realize is that, when you are dealing with a digital work, the rights of authorized access and the rights of duplication (copying) are completely inseperable. They are welded together so tightly that you can't have one without the other. The reason most people don't realize this is because they don't understand how a CD or DVD player really works. They don't understand the physical principles behind it all...

This is why the DMCA and all the other attempts to color copying as evil are so fundamentally flawed. They are ignoring basic fundamental principles of physics! By my own estimates, just watching a DVD involves making five (yes, 5) distinct copies. Here they are:
  1. The DVD player copies data from the disc using a laser.
  2. There's a chip that unscrambles the encrypted data (DeCSS) and, yes, this involves making a copy.
  3. The unscrambled data gets sent to a processor.
  4. The processor sends data to a graphics chip
  5. The graphics chip sends it to a display, where you see it.
Each of these steps involves copying, but because it all happens inside a little black-box, nobody sees what's really going on...

Because of this lack of understanding, organizations like the MPAA and the RIAA have failed to cope with this in an intelligent way and, more importantly, the Courts have not recognized it either. Even the latest Skylink decision assumes that authorized access can be separated from copying.

My Rights as a Consumer

If I go down to the video store and buy a copy of SpiderMan II on DVD, I think everyone would agree that I am authorized to watch the movie. I own the right to watch this movie, and my right to watch this movie does not expire. This right is perpetual.

Furthermore, I think every reasonable person would agree that whoever receives this DVD from me also has the right to watch the movie as well. I think I am perfectly within my rights to give it away as a Christmas gift, sell it to a used CD store, or let my kids inherit it after I die... My right to watch this movie is transferable (ref: Doctrine of First Sale).

Getting to the Point

If I go up to Jack Valenti or Dan Glickman and ask them if I have the right to copy this DVD, they'll say no. I can show them the receipt and they'll still say no. If they really want to insist that I don't have any right to make a copy, even after I explain the physics of the situation to them, then I really ought to ask them for my money back.

Now that I think about it, this could explain why I don't have a DVD player at home and have never owned a single DVD. Ever. It could also be that I'm just cheap. But maybe, just maybe, it's because my inner physicist is subconciously offended by any business model that is in conflict with the fundamental laws of the universe...