Intellectual Property Rights and Copyrights

As we learned earlier, one of the technological changes that made the birth and explosion of new media possible is the near universal compatibility of digital content. This along with the absence of a physical object onto which media content is coded (a DVD instead of a digital file on a computer or other device) has created issues with increased piracy, which refers to the unlawful reproduction and/or distribution of intellectual property or other copyrighted material.Ronald J. Deibert, “Black Code Redux: Censorship, Surveillance, and the Militarization of Cyberspace,” in Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, ed. Megan Boler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 140. This problem gained much attention following the mass popularity of the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing program Napster. Despite the numerous lawsuits and legal challenges that Napster faced, P2P file-sharing programs like Limewire, Vuze, and bitTorrent became the new way to legally and illegally share files ranging from software to video games, documents, books, music, and movies.

Once anything is digitized and makes its way to one of these networks, it becomes nearly impossible to control or limit its circulation. For example, media corporations and law enforcement and government agencies have tried to prosecute individuals, require Internet service providers to take action against users who illegally download materials or visit suspect sites, or shut down domain names based in the United States.Jared Newman, “SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts,” PC World, January 17, 2012, accessed November 8, 2012, of these measures has been very effective, especially for sites based outside of the United States, but a renewed effort on the part of interest groups that represent the entertainment industry led to the introduction of two pieces of legislation that stirred up quite a backlash. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were introduced into the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to make it more difficult for sites, in the United States and abroad, to distribute pirated copyrighted materials ranging from movies, to music, to digital books. Although many people applaud the effort to stop the circulation of pirated material, many were also afraid that the regulations could lead to restrictions on other forms of information circulation such as open source sharing and crowdsourcing.Larry Magid, “What Are SOPA and PIPA and Why All the Fuss?” Forbes, January 18, 2012, accessed November 8, 2012, To protest and raise awareness of these laws, several high-profile sites and hundreds of other online supporters engaged in the largest act of cyberprotest to date. On January 18, 2012, sites like Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist “went black,” limited content, or displayed information about SOPA and PIPA. Within a few days, support for the laws had dwindled, and both are now on indefinite hold.

Most new media scholars and commentators do not question the fact that some information should be protected as intellectual property and that many artistic creations should be copyrighted. Such practices help ensure that innovation and creativity are recognized and that the people who create them are duly compensated. Such protections actually help promote and protect freedom of speech and provide an incentive for people to expend considerable time and effort to produce innovative and creative products and exchange ideas and art that circulate and enhance our society.Ronald J. Deibert, “Black Code Redux: Censorship, Surveillance, and the Militarization of Cyberspace,” in Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, ed. Megan Boler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 140.Intellectual property rights and protections are newer and more difficult to enforce and even define than are copyrights. After all, putting protections on “knowledge” or “information” is more ambiguous than putting a copyright on a discrete item like a book or song. In the realm of academia, especially, the philosophy of open and shared knowledge has been applied to academic research and scholarship. Ideas and findings are free to circulate and be used and adapted (with the proper citation and/or credit given) in order to further knowledge and provide a system of transparency and accountability. Corporations and companies have long had a more closed policy to knowledge and information, keeping many product ideas and designs to themselves and considering them proprietary information. Such practices, including issuing patents for inventions or considering certain information confidential, help keep individuals and businesses striving for better and/or more competitive products or ideas. The increase in corporate-like application of such protections to intellectual property in academia and other scientific areas that were historically more open and collaborative has received much criticism. To reiterate, these issues exist independently of new media, but the fact that most ideas and creations are now in digital form and that the Internet provides for sharing and then rapid and uncontrollable diffusion of such material is what creates the issue relevant to our discussion. And the issue of enforcement is what brings us back to the notion and ethics of censorship.

One way such protections have been enforced is by actually building new codes directly into the content or technology. Again, this alone isn’t enough to constitute an ethical violation. But one media scholar and critic sums up the oppositional view of such practices in the following statement: “Many believe the restrictions are leading to the suffocation of works in the public domain for scholarship and a wholesale erosion of the global commons of information.”Ronald J. Deibert, “Black Code Redux: Censorship, Surveillance, and the Militarization of Cyberspace,” in Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, ed. Megan Boler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 141. The main criticism in terms of infringement on intellectual work rests on the increase in copyrights and intellectual property laws on the circulation of academic findings and publications. The Internet is seen by many as a tool to enhance academic research and sharing and as a place for collaboration, but such laws have limited or shut down some academic databases and the circulation of electronic journals and articles.

The main criticism in terms of infringement on creative works rests on the loss of revenue for artists, authors, and musicians whose works are pirated and losses for their representatives, such as distributors, record labels, or movie studios. Since piracy, which is the illegal or unauthorized reproduction of a copyrighted product, hasn’t been successfully curtailed through threats of prosecution, the codes that I mentioned earlier have become the new means of protection. This practice, called digital rights management (DRM), involves embedding device- or program-specific codes into a digital product that limit its ability to be reproduced and/or used on multiple devices. DRM has raised much concern and controversy. I’m sure we’ve all been frustrated that we can’t get a song we downloaded from iTunes to play on a “nonapproved device” or experienced the annoying unintended effects of DRM. Even though that content belongs to us and we bought it legally, we are not able to take advantage of the portability and cross-platform compatibility that we learned earlier is so characteristic of new media. The use of these codes is critiqued because they limit choice for those who legally and/or rightfully purchased the content and because they lead to a dependency on certain companies (usually large powerful ones) like Microsoft or Apple, which can limit the ability of people, especially those who are already marginalized in terms of socioeconomic status, to access and use certain technology or products.

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