I believe copyright law and content distribution must change to at last take into consideration the needs of the consumer, the creator, and the distributor in the digital age.
My grandfather one day found his entire LP collection of Al Jolson throughout the ages to be of no use to him while he was driving, and so set out on a search for a version of Jolson that was. I told him that the CD player in his truck would, with the right disc, reproduce as faithfully as it could the rich tones of the American vocal icon. After we went over the technical details and why the LPs “not fitting” into the CD slot was the least of his concerns, the reality of his having to re-purchase Jolson’s works dawned upon him. It is worth noting here that my retired grandfather would’ve been a little hard-pressed to find a local music store with more than perhaps one of Jolson’s albums in CD form, let alone pop on over to Amazon.com or ken the iTunes music store – all disregarding the price, of course, with the availability, both of which were daunting obstacles.
Therefore, my own ethics sated by my grandfather’s lifelong admiration for the performer, Jolson’s retirement to the land of the dead, as well as his possession of the copyrighted material simply in a different form, I downloaded Al Jolson’s complete discography, as well as rare radio recordings, in lossless compression format via BitTorrent. The legality of such actions bothered my grandfather for a while, replaced before too long with a sort of marvel at the availability of music freely available on the Internet. I left him, with a DSL connection and a BitTorrent client. A few weeks later, he had his entire LP collection in digital format, as well as the songs of a few artists whom he had owned at one point or another and lost the albums for in some disaster lost in obscurity, and was asking for a larger hard drive. I taught him how to burn proper CDs instead, but at the same time cautioned him against “overdoing it.” I cautioned him only gently however, as the acid indigestion of hypocrisy was churning in my gut as I thought of the compilation of the top electronic music of Eastern Europe for the last 20 years, along with the obscure mid-eighties version of The Lathe of Heaven which were busily downloading on my own Internet connection. Moreover, I wasn’t myself entirely sure on the moral or ethical, let along legal standpoint on any of our actions. After he happened upon some articles on the RIAA and its actions, my grandfather hastily packed up his BitTorrent and would have nothing to do with music downloads again. “Your grandmother would kill me!” he insisted.
He had the music he wanted, and obviously did not look with regret upon the time at which the whole of creative work on the last one hundred years was open to him, gratis. If I were his age, I don’t suppose I would either – but I am not. I am young, with the entire stormfront of copyright, content, intellectual property, creator v. distributor v. RIAA roiling in my near future, and I am in need of an ethical compass concerning such matters. I, like many of my peers, have chosen the course of copyright anarchy, choosing to do as we please, to donate online to artists whom we respect and enjoy, to enjoy freely the works of artists long deceased, to revile the scare tactics of institutions ignorant of the capacity and needs of the technology of the last twenty years, clinging instead to infrastructure and business models made, to many, infuriatingly outdated and inadequate. Therefore, we take our chances, waiting for the day when we are martyred by lawyer’s fees and two minute news segments on the national news concerning the new digital thieves. I do not envy my grandfather, because the potential of the next generation in terms of freedom and creativity built smoothly upon the past is, if not inevitable, then enough to keep myself and many like me hopeful for such a world to come to fruition.
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