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Be my guest - rip me off!

The media establishment is still having trouble coming to terms with the digital revolution. The Internet remains impossible to control, being global, unlike the legal system. The only answer from big content owners seems to be imposing even more draconian restrictions than were in existence before digital technology hit the scene.

Those of us who grew up before MP3s arrived regularly used to make cassette tapes of our LP albums for friends. And how often have you passed the VHS recording of a TV program to a mate who missed it? Neither of these activities have been attacked by the media industry in the same way as file sharing, although both cassette tapes and VHS recorders had initially caused concern to media companies. Remember ‘home taping is killing music’? Obviously, it didn’t. A few miscreants sold tapes of their albums and illicit VHS movie copies at the local market, but personal analog media sharing could just as easily have aided marketing as lost sales. If we liked what we heard, we might even go out and buy our own copy.

"Those of us who grew up before MP3s arrived regularly used to make cassette tapes of our LP albums for friends"

Clearly, however, the kind of sharing which goes on via sites like The Pirate Bay is far from the same as running off a copy of the latest Duran Duran album on cassette for your best mate. The P2P network is neither local nor personal. Other users are anonymous and could be anywhere round the globe, which certainly stretches the concept of sharing with your friends. And as almost all the main P2P sites accept advertising, they’re making money out of distributing other people’s content, too.

So, while media companies have a good case against file sharing websites, the problem is that the digital rights management (DRM) being rolled out to combat P2P actually restricts the kind of friendly local sharing which was tolerated in analog days. Currently, if you buy an album off Napster or iTunes you can make more than one CD out of it, so you could share it with a friend. But you can’t just send them the music. If you record TV with a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, you can burn the content to DVD-Video with an optional Sonic plug-in, but if you just copy the files across there’s a good chance they won’t play on any other system. Some TV companies want to restrict this completely, and legal movie downloads are often tied to just the PC you downloaded the movie onto.

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James Morris

Although CD sales have fallen in various markets, it’s far from clear if this is the result of music sharing, or just economic recession. It could even be boredom with pop music in general. A November 2004 study quoted by the BBC (here) claimed file sharers bought one less album for every five downloaded, but the prognosis was only based on research with 412 students. So that’s hardly conclusive. But the study also claimed that music purchased on album was valued more than that downloaded for free, which comes as no surprise. High volume file sharers hardly bother to watch or listen to any of what they share, making its value as content pretty low. It’s a bit like stamp collecting, except the stamps are copies of movies, albums, and cracked software.

"This why I have chosen to publish my first novel under a Creative Commons license"

And who are the draconian new DRM schemes intended to protect anyway? The creative artist or the media company which lives off their creativity? Sharing is an integral part of giving the consumer the freedom to sample media before committing to purchase it. But media companies would rather tell you what to buy and walk away with the cash before you really know what you’ve bought. For example, the digital cinema projection being rolled out in cinemas over the last few years will make multi-country simultaneous release dates of movies much easier, so the hype dictates the hits.

Fortunately, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig is trying to forge a way somewhere in between the total copyright control preferred by the RIAA and MPAA, and the free-for-all of the Bit Torrent sites. His new Creative Commons licenses (creativecommons.org) are starting to win favour around the world. It’s copyright informed by a heavy dose of Open Source. Some types of Creative Commons license even give free rein for reuse in new works, although the original creative works are still owned commercially by their authors alone. In all cases, however, non-commercial sharing is entirely freed up.

This why I have chosen to publish my first novel under a Creative Commons license. It’s called The Escapist, and you can read more about it at TheEscapist.co.uk . Creative Commons doesn’t mean that much for a paper printed work. You can share a book around legally already, and photocopying or scanning an entire literary work is too impractical to be much of a danger. But my book is also available as an Ebook – and not just a non-printable, non-copy-able encrypted digital reader format, but a standard PDF you can print or share as much as you like. The only thing you can’t do with it is sell the copies you make. So, if you like the sound of The Escapist and do buy it in one of its forms, please share it around as much as you like. Be my guest and rip me off!