As someone who earns a living from the written word, I keep a close eye on all that's happening in the copyright wars, that is, the ongoing skirmishes between the large companies that own the copyright on various types of media and the general populace who consume and use such media. I fundamentally disagree with the way these companies - known by some as the Content Cartel - conduct their business and treat their customers, but I'm far more worried by the ways in which they use their deep pockets to affect legislation such as the truly troubling Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). But as much as I've participated in innumerable online discussions in which theoretical situations showing the inanity of the current copyright regime are batted back and forth, I've never actually collected real-world stories in which copyright, the DMCA, and the tactics of the Content Cartel impinge upon the media-related activities of normal people, activities that meet the common sense standard of fair use.
Luckily for me, well-known blogger J.D. Lasica spent two years amassing those stories, and he's woven them into a book, "Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation." Lasica does a fine job of explaining the DMCA and other efforts to clamp down on any use of media the Content Cartel doesn't want to see, and I'd recommend that anyone who is unsure of the harm being done in those ways read the book for that reason. But what made it a compelling read for me were his stories of the real people who have run afoul of the copyright regime in various different ways. He tells the story of a pastor of an evangelical Christian church who uses snippets from movies and television shows in his sermons, and whether or not a case could be made for what he's doing being "fair use," the fact is that he's ripping the scenes from DVD in violation of the DMCA. Similarly illegal is a homemade DVD created by an Intel executive for his son's Pop Warner football team, because the guy added a snippet of fans cheering wildly from the DVD version of the football movie "Rudy," along with some scenes of NFL players doing touchdown dances and audio from the song "Who Let the Dogs Out?". Amusingly, Lasica describes the executive's homemade DVD to MPAA head Jack Valenti, who says flatly, "He's committing a violation of federal law." And then there's the Tennessee musician who wanted to create a limited run CD-compilation of some obscure southern blues artists of the 1920s to help preserve their music, which has been out of print for decades. When Sony Music demanded $40,000 for the non-profit endeavor, he took the effort underground, violating copyright in the process.
But not all the stories are so, well, obvious. Lasica also relates the story of the kids who - starting at age 10 and continuing over the next seven years - created a shot-for-shot adaptation of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that you will never have a chance to see because of fear of legal reprisals (a work that bears a "substantial similarity" to an original copyrighted work can be punishable by a year in prison and up to $50,000 in fines, even if it's never shown commercially). And in an ironic twist I hadn't previously heard about, Lasica tells of the Utah family that wants to be able to watch R-rated movies without any scenes of sex or violence, an activity that's made possible by movie filtering technology that can edit out or modify scenes and language on normal DVDs as they're being played back. The companies that created such technology have attracted lawsuits from Hollywood, and at least one has been forced to close its doors for lack of funding after investors were spooked by the suits. (For even more amusing stories of copyright inanity, read or listen to the "Fair Use Follies" segment of the NPR radio show and podcast On the Media that aired 19-May-06.)
Also fascinating is Lasica's jaunt into the movie trading underworld, including iChat interviews with highly placed figures who explain in detail how "release groups" parcel out the time-intensive work necessary to acquire, decrypt, encode, and distribute a movie. It's more of a social network than anything else, since no money changes hands anywhere in the process, and the release groups often span the globe. Members freely admit that what they're doing could hurt studios, though they say that they still buy movie tickets and DVDs all the time, at least for movies that are worth watching. (You can read the full interview, in inimitable IM language on the Darknet Web site.)
Lasica is by no means an uninterested bystander. He's also known as the founder of Ourmedia, an open-source project and Web site whose mission is to host and archive - for free - any works of personal media. But if that means the representatives of the Content Cartel don't manage to come off as the protectors (or even the creators) of our cultural future in "Darknet" (much the opposite), it also means that Lasica doesn't content himself merely with documenting the problem and its accompany slippery slope. At the end of the book, he offers a 10-point roadmap to creating a digital culture that serves everyone's needs - if nothing else, it's a excellent place to start.
If you've felt the confusion and tension surrounding the entire topic of intellectual property and copyright protection, as many of us have, I encourage you to pick up a copy of "Darknet" as a way of solidifying your thoughts on the matter. It's an important book, and an issue that won't be going away any time soon.