In the past, when Brown received complaints from media conglomerates that students were using file-sharing networks for purposes of copyright infringement, the administration would react by sending a simple e-mail to the offender. The e-mail demanded that the student delete the copyrighted material and cease further file-sharing activity. Of course, the offender could simply keep the files and falsely claim to have deleted them, and no authority would be any the wiser.
Although farcical in nature, Brown's copyright infringement policy was in theory an effective means of protecting itself from legal action, assuming that the recipient of the warning did not neglect to respond. Perhaps because this assumption did not hold up in practice, the University has recently begun sending physical letters to student pirates, thereby making the warning far more difficult to ignore.
While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 compels the University to take this step, this expansion — albeit a minute one — of the administration's efforts against media piracy prompts an investigation into the supposed merits of the measures that media producers have taken to defend their intellectual property.
For instance, NBC Universal has for several years waged an aggressive campaign against any threat to its intellectual property rights. Aside from its well-known efforts to block its televised content from appearing on YouTube and other video-sharing Web sites, NBC Universal has recently lobbied the federal government to impose even stricter punishments for copyright infringement than those promulgated by DMCA.
Similarly, the Recording Industry Association of America has engaged in notoriously draconian tactics to defend the copyrights of its member record labels, including suing a 12-year-old girl for $2,000 and suing other offenders of copyright law for up to $150,000 per song downloaded.
The fact that copyright holders are allowed by law to sue for such excessive sums has led in part to a plethora of laughable lawsuits. Case in point: in 2006, the RIAA sued a Russian music-sharing Web site for $1.65 trillion, despite the fact that this is a value larger than the entire nominal GDP of Russia.
The anti-piracy strategy employed in 2005 by Sony BMG Music Entertainment, a major member label of the RIAA, was particularly egregious. In order to prevent purchasers of CDs from copying that music to any other format, Sony-produced CDs contained copy- protection software that users were required to install in order to play the CDs' contents on a computer. Aside from being nigh impossible to remove, this copy-protection software also created a series of security vulnerabilities that were heavily exploited by viruses.
Computer games have also been adversely affected by the propagation of digital rights management. Many popular games are distributed with StarForce or SecuROM, two controversial copy-protection schemes that have issues similar to those of Sony's copy- protection software. StarForce has been known to diminish system performance in a number of ways and cause security vulnerabilities, and SecuROM has an unfortunate tendency to insist that legitimately purchased games are pirated and block their operation.
The makers of these programs assert that, despite these problems, their programs succeed in their objective of preventing the unauthorized use of the applications that they defend. However, even a cursory glance at Pirate Bay or other such Web sites demonstrates that this claim is false.
The result, then, is a copy-protection scheme for computer games that in reality does the exact opposite. By punishing legitimate purchasers with inferior software, copy-protection schemes incentivize piracy by increasing the demand for "cracked" versions of games, wherein these security protocols have been bypassed. Given that anti-piracy tactics discourage lawful consumption of media products, it is no small wonder that illegal file sharing is such a huge phenomenon. However, by examining the shortfalls of copyright-based industries, the solution to the problem of piracy becomes clear.
Contrary to the views of media executives, the fact that only a small fraction of copyright violators can possibly be prosecuted implies that new government regulation will have little impact, if any at all, on a consumer's propensity to acquire content illegally. The solution, then, is an effort on the copyright holders' part to minimize the factors that drive potential customers toward piracy, not additional punishments for a few violators.
Apple, which is one of the largest music distributors in the world despite being a computer manufacturer, accomplishes this by streamlining the processes of purchase and use and by offering fair prices. Steam offers a similar distribution style for computer games. Most media distributors are not keen on this approach, however; our old friends at NBC Universal pulled most of their content from Apple's iTunes Store after Apple refused to charge higher prices for NBC Universal television shows.
The cessation of litigious bullying and unfair copy-protection protocols on the part of media corporations in favor of a quality-based approach makes economic sense for artists, distributors, consumers and most of all, Brown students who simply want towatch 30 Rock in peace.
Hunter Fast '12 is still angry at NBC for getting rid of Conan o'Brien. He can be reached at hunter (underscore) fast (at) brown.edu.