Friday, January 20, 2012

What the Digital Piracy Debate Looked Like in 1985


As far as the corporate lobbyists in Washington are concerned, the spectacularly reckless anti-piracy measures being introduced under SOPA and PROTECT-IP have been a long time coming. In some sense, they are right: After the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing in the 90s, copyright advocates have sat atop a growing supply of political ammunition that has enabled them to pile on one law after another in their favor. Much like terrorism, piracy seems to be a problem that, conveniently, will never disappear completely. Perhaps then it would behoove us to look back at where it all began.

Software piracy was already an established art form when this program originally aired. But it is significant because it coincided with a Supreme Court decision that set the stage for much of the debate on intellectual property and file sharing that would follow. It was here, during the 1985 case of Dowling v. United States that a U.S. court first made the distinction between copyright infringement and “theft.” Dowling’s bootlegged vinyl racket was a clear-cut example of copyright infringement, the court decided, but it did not constitute theft.
Copyright owners didn’t like this very much and have nonetheless continued to equate unauthorized duplication with stealing (You Wouldn’t Steal A Car!). Meanwhile, supporters of file sharing, especially during the Napster days, often cited this decision in their defense.
Since then, the scale may have changed thanks to the internet, but the dynamics of piracy remain largely the same. The elite hacker (represented here by the legendary Captain Crunch) is complemented by droves of normal folks using simple tools to break copy protection — whether that’s floppy disk duplication software like Locksmith in 1985 or Bit Torrent clients and DRM-cracking programs today. Which leads you to wonder: If better locks and bigger crackdowns weren’t enough to stop piracy then, how sensible can heavy-handed variations of these same methods possibly be today, especially if they stand to break the internet in the process?


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