When is Copyright Infrigement OK?

Nowadays, everybody has heard of Napster, filesharing, cracks, modchips, the RIAA and whatnot. We are also all aware that some people illegally aquire software and media without remunerating the companies and authors that created those information-based goods (By informaton based, I mean anything which can be copied : books, music, movies, software, pictures, etc.)

Most of us also know that theft, which was pretty much always illegal and recognized as almost universally wrong.

Copyright Infringement, in the other hand is a relatively new crime. A civil offense usually, unlike theft. Variants of it were adopted starting with the 18th century to try and encourage artists and reward creators much like the patent system was invented to encourage and reward inventors. The stated reason behind this was that it would ultimately benefit society more in the long term.

I hope everybody’s with me so far.

My question here is:

If copyright laws became harmful to society at large, should they be reformed or abolished or are they morally necessary no matter what the public consensus (much like anti-segregation laws)?

And, if they are not morally necessary, what would it take for you to be convinced they should be reformed/abolished? Feel free to provide concrete, detailed examples to illustrate your viewpoint.

PS: While I do not wish to stifle debate, try to remain within the scope of those two questions. We already have dozens of generic piracy threads.

Copyright infringement, the tortious offense, is never OK. But the copyright law recognizes exceptions to the generic standard that a copyright holder controls all use of his copyrighted material: the Fair Use provisions. With regard to music, there is also another permissible non-granted use, which I think is called “the mechanical” – and I’m not sufficiently familiar with the law on either to go into any detail.

But quickly, Fair Use provides that you may use excerpts of reasonable length from a copyrighted work, without permission, for certain selected educational, civic, critical and review purposes. The specifics of when and what constitutes a reasonable length for an excerpt involve long and detailed case law discussions. I won’t even attempt to comment on the other.

You’re being a bit vague about what copyright laws you’re referring to, I think. Bear in mind that copyright law wasn’t nearly as sweeping in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Copyrights expired after 28 years and could be renewed for another 28, making 56 years in all that a work could remain under copyright. However, thanks in large part to media giants like Time Warner and Disney, copyright terms have been extended to the point that virtually nothing published since about the mid 1920’s will pass into the public doman in the near future. And you can bet that whenever Time Warner and Disney think they’re about to lose the copyright on valuable properties they’ll just go to Congress and get the laws changed again.

Among other things, this stifles creativity. Artists, writers and musicians have always borrowed freely from their predecessors, but virtually unlimited copyrights will greatly limit their right to do so.

We had the recent example of a woman who wrote a parody of Gone with the Wind from the viewpoint of a black female slave and was sued by the Mitchell estate. Disney could borrow freely from the Brothers Grimm. No one can legally borrow from Disney. If copyright law was the same today as it was in the 1930’s, much of Disney’s best work would be in the public domain and other creators could make use of it in their own work.

It was once understood that people had the right to make copies of works for their own limited, personal use. For example, if you had a CD player in your home stereo system but only a tape player in your car, it was understood that you had the right to tape the CD so you could play the tape in your car. Even that principle is now being undermined.

Frankly, I find it rather creepy that megacorps fully believe they are legally and morally entitled to so much control over the flow of information.

We might also consider that the Church of Scientology has abused copyright law to harass critics. A cult called Eckankar has used copyright law to suppress early books published by their founder, Paul Twitchell, to avoid certain embarassments. I understand the Institute for Objectivist Studies has threatened to sue some critics of Ayn Rand for copyright violation when they quoted her work.

I am already convinced that copyright should be much more limited than it presently is. Copyright law was originally intended to encourage creativity and research. Today it is used simply to protect corporate profits. It isn’t right.

Boy howdy, is the OP a mismatch with the thread title.

Your OP asks whether or at what point copyright laws should be changed. Your thread title asks when it’s OK to violate the laws.

Maybe you should ask the mods to bring the thread title in line with your questions.

I agree both the title and the OP could have been better worded. But it is an interesting question. At what point would copyright law become so outrageously one-sided and unfair that it would be morally or ethically justifiable to ignore it?

I think we’ve reached or almost reached that point.

…you mean this book? The law suit doesn’t seem to have stopped the book going on sale.

The only time I could see violating the copyright laws as they stand now would be if I wanted a) to purchase an older, out-of-print work, or b) replace an existing copy with a more durable copy that is out of print. As it stands now, I can’t legally purchase a replacement copy because the publisher (especially record companies) has no financial incentive to sell it to me, as it would be a loss for them. It is at that point, especially with music, that I cast a longing eye toward P2P as a means of obtaining what the publisher otherwise refuses to release.


Yes, the defendent eventually won the suit on the grounds that parody and satire are longstanding traditions.

This brings up an additional interestng point. As it stands now, the law enormously favors people and institutions with large amounts of money. The sort of people that can easily apportion a tiny fraction of their income for legal services and still afford topnotch legal representation. Current copyright law gives the wealthy an enormous club to wave at the less wealthy. It’s not just successful legal cases, its the fear of having to go to court at all that works in favor of the wealthy.

To directly address the OP, I feel there’s a difference between what’s moral and right and what’s legal. Right now the copyright laws are so restrictive that much of what is moral and right is illegal. The original idea behind copyright laws was that protecting writers and artists so they could make money off their work, it would enrich the culture. Instead, they now protect coporations and harm writers and artists and such. The law has been perverted by money, imagine that.

You are correct. Since each country’s relevant copyright laws are different, I tried to be as inclusive as possible. This is more about general principles of copyright law in today’s prosperous countries. Poorer countries tend to have much more pressing problems to attend to and usually must be pressured by the aforementionned prosperous countries to crack down on violations.

Guilty as charged. I wanted an easy to understand topic so it may not be the most accurate description. I wouldn’t mind it if a mod wanted to take a crack at renaming it.

Here is a list of my understanding of where copyright law stands on a number of subjects, their morality, and the law’s enforeability:

  1. Copying stuff from one medium to another for your own use after you’ve legally obtained it for your own personal use: completely moral. You bought it, it’s yours, have at it. I believe this is legal. But legal or not, it’s pretty much impossible to enforce at present. Reselling it commercially, illegal and not morally OK, and enforceable.

  2. Copying stuff off broadcast or cable TV for your own use. Morally OK, legal, uneforceable. Reselling it commercially, illegal and not morally OK, and enforceable.

  3. Copying stuff from the Web or P2P networks or buying bootleg copies that’s commercial in nature to avoid having to pay retail for it. Illegal, not morally OK, not all that enforceable.

  4. Copying stuff from the Web or P2P networks or buying bootleg copies that’s commercial nature because it’s not available because of censorship, trade barriers (this is very common with international stuff) or the copyright holder just won’t release it: illegal, morally OK, sometimes enforceable, often not.

  5. Copying stuff that’s trademarked or copyright and using it in your own artwork or whatever and transforming it in some way (say, by using it as part of a collage or part of a larger work that changes the meaning of the original image) for commercial purposes: illegal, morally OK, generally enforceable.

  6. Using someone’s trademarked or coyrighted images, words, etc., without their permission for your own personal use. (Say, you copy an image off the Web of Mickey Mouse and use it to create an iron T-shirt design just for your own T-shirt.) Illegal, morally OK, unenforceable. Using someone’s trademarket or copyrighted images, words, etc. for commercial purposes without their permission, illegal, morally not OK, enforceable.

That covers most of the options I can think of for now.

The fact that you have to somewhat lamely claim that you “got better” tends to throw considerable doubt upon your claim to have been turned into a newt in the first place.

If one were cynical, one might suppose that it were necessary for the conscience of the anti-copyright movement for it to kid itself that, like modern day Robin Hoods, their opponents are all Evil Megacorp Lords, and that they on the side of the humble writer/artist peasantry.

As has been pointed out before, whenever we have one of these threads essentially all the writers and artists from these boards who participate (none of them big time megastars) seem rather to perceive the anti-copyright movement as lowlife scum who rob the elderly and the poor while pretending to befriend them.

Pardon me if I’m more inclined to trust their perception more than yours.

I listed a whole bunch of potential copyright infringements and where I stood on them in terms of legality vs. morality. But all you have is this cartoon Robin Hood stuff. Pardon me if I’m not inclined to trust your generalities.

OK, you want it straight, here it is: you say copyright laws “now protect coporations and harm writers and artists and such”.

The writers and artists who have in the past participated in this debate have indicated quite the contrary, so: cite?

The key word, I think, being “now”. Or are you claiming that releasing copyright 95 years after the author’s death is of legitimate benefit to society? I doubt most people fall into your cartoonish “anti-copyright” stereotype; in fact, I doubt you’ll find anyone that thinks copyright should be outright abolished. The main disagreement is settling on an appropriate point on the time continuum – 0 is too little, but 95 years post-mortem is way out of line.

Digital Stimulus, there doesn’t seem to be much connect between what I’ve written in my posts and your assumptions about my position. Quite simply, Evil Captor has made a statement, namely that at present copyright laws protect corporations and harm writers and artists. A proposition at odds with my experience of what writers and artists have to say on the subject.

And if you want “cartoonish” then I suggest you re-read the posts of Lonesome Polecat and Evil Captor, in which those who benefit from copyright are always (for some reason) “megacorps” while copyright does nothing but stifle the creativity of artists and writers. Such is the conveniently cartoonish simplicity of this viewpoint that you will never hear of copyright benefitting minor artists and writers (even though that undoubtedly occurs). Indeed it is precisely the simplistic nature of this viewpoint that caused me to lampoon it with reference to cartoonish imagery.

Furthermore, you say that the main disagreement is on settling on appropriate time for copyright, yet precisely none of Evil Captor’s categories of copyright infringement that he considers moral are qualified in that way.

Really? If that’s the case, then perhaps I misunderstand. But am I not justified in obliquely inferring that you approve of copyright laws as they now stand? If not, then what is your position? If so, then where is the disconnect?

Well, let’s look a bit closer at that, with the underlying assumption that copyright is meant to financially benefit the artist / author. The “moral” points are (slight editing in the form of cutting on my part):

If the purpose of copyright law is for financial benefit, then there can be no objection to 1 and 2, the financial benefit was already gained. In the case of 4, the opportunity for benefit is non-existent. That leaves 5 and 6; 5 is recognized as having uses for parody, satire, or substantial modification of the original work. Do you object to that? The case of 6, it seems to me, is the only item that you may legitamately criticize to some degree. So, let’s stipulate that there is a reasonable time limit on copyright; say, 28 years. What about this list is objectionable? Who is stereotyping? (Hint: it wasn’t Evil Captor, IMO.)

Excuse me, but exactly where did I say that copyright law benefits only megacorps and stifles artists and writers? You’re attacking straw men here.

It is quite evident that the copyright laws are being altered and manipulated to benefit media corporations like Disney and Time-Warner. These corporations have shown that they are perfectly willing to strongarm Congress into changing the copyright laws in their favor without regard for the public good. Consequently, these companies are gaining greater and greater control over the flow of information, and I see some serious dangers there. No one is talking about eliminating copyright. We’re talking about the abuse of the principle of copyright. Try to be a little more open-minded and less hostile here, m’kay?

Not the issue. This is not about me. For the third time, Evil Captor said that at present copyright laws protect corporations and harm writers and artists. I called him on it. It’s that simple. Do you agree with him or not? If so, cite. If not, why are you arguing with me?

Sorry, you are going off on tangents here. You said that “the main disagreement is settling on an appropriate point on the time continuum”. But Evil Captor’s list simply states that certain behaviours are morally OK but infringe copyright. He does not say “I wouldn’t consider them to be morally OK if they were done within X years of creation of the copyright work, but I do consider them to be morally OK after that.” His comments are not time qualified at all and yet you are suggesting this is “the main disagreement”.

There is clearly disagreement on time (witness LP’s posts) but your suggestion that this is “the main disagreement” is presumptuous (per Evil Captor).

No I’m not. I didn’t say that you said “copyright only benefits megacorps etc” what I said was that in your posts, it is always the megacorps that benefit etc. Your posts are like cartoons in which the baddies always have moustaches and say “mwhaha” a lot: the cartoons never say explicitly that all baddies have moustaches and say “mwhaha”, but that nonetheless is how they are always portrayed.

Go back and read your post #3. Without exception, you only mention profit from copyright in the context of corporations. You never mention it in relation to individual artists. Same with Evil Captor.