Near the end of the spring semester here at UNI I was accused of uploading Game of Thrones: Season 5 Episode 3 without permission on the university’s network. As one of the sanctions placed on me by the university I was required to write a research paper about “the history and importance of copyright infringement”. I did honest research, albeit with an initial bias, and came to my own conclusions about modern copyright law. I did not write an apology letter. Indeed, I wanted to challenge dogma. Here is what I gave the Office of the Dean of Students:
A culture is not complete without its own forms of literature, film, drama, music, and other creative works. In order to ensure the flourishing of these arts, and hence the flourishing of a large and diverse part of Western society, it is necessary to protect artists and their rights. This is precisely the motivation behind the Copyright Act of 1790, as well as its major revision in 1976. Times have changed, however. With the advent of computers, DVR, camera phones, and the internet, it is has become very easy to copy, reproduce, and obtain media of all kinds from all over the world. With the development of these technologies, and the ease of obtaining and distributing copyrighted media, contemporary intellectual property law was born.
In 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a document which serves to establish and protect the rights of artists in the case of online copyright infringement, was signed into law by Bill Clinton. The DMCA passed through senate with a unanimous vote. (DMCA, 1998) To combat redistribution and infringement, the DMCA empowers artists by strengthening their copyright on the internet. For example, a young artist trying to make money from selling singles may invoke the DMCA in order to remove a YouTube video featuring the artists’ content without the artists’ consent. In such a case YouTube is responsible for removing the video and informing the user, but YouTube is not liable for damages. This is another facet of the DMCA. Since it is unfair to require internet service providers of such large scale (YouTube has more than one million users who make profit from advertisement revenue) to be held accountable for the actions of their clients and users, the DMCA limits the liability of the providers.
Although the DMCA limits the liability of service providers like YouTube, there is still conflict between content providers and the large video streaming website. In 2007 Viacom filed charges against YouTube for copyright infringement. Viacom claimed that the volume of different users uploading Viacom’s content accrued more than $1 billion in damages. (Helft, 2010) The initial verdict was that YouTube was protected by the DMCA, but in the sequence of appeals there was a ruling that YouTube could be held liable due to YouTube having “general knowledge” that “many people upload copyrighted content.” In the end of the court battle, the DMCA acted as a shield for YouTube rather than a sword for Viacom and no damages were paid. Though it is obvious that YouTube is not interested in committing infringement, their liability was the subject of heated debate – the case took 6 years to settle. When it comes to the case of file sharing with copyrighted media, however, the verdict is clear. Using file sharing services to download or upload files is a violation of copyright law.
Since file sharing software is so commonplace, copyright infringement is happening more now than ever. Those who stand to challenge copyright infringement are, of course, those who feel the effect most of all. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) manufacture and deliver 85% of all media in the United States and have sued more than 20,000 individuals for distributing copyrighted media. (Kravets, 2010) Since the DMCA protects internet service providers, the RIAA may only sue individual violators directly. Out of the 20,000 cases that have been opened, only 2,500 have been settled. The RIAA’s litigation campaign has been incredibly unsuccessful and has even been accused of being nothing more than an “intimidation campaign”. Such allegations are easy to believe knowing that the RIAA has also sued the families of dead men; the RIAA gave the family of Larry Scantlebury 60 days of grieving before the attack on his estate in the courtroom. (Bylund, 2006) As indicated by only 2,500 settled cases, this behavior from the RIAA does not go unchecked. The RIAA has been met by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), a pro-open culture litigation shield for vulnerable parties, in court many times. (EFF, 2015) With their defeat on the front of individual lawsuits the RIAA has resorted to tracking peer to peer uploads and asking the service provider to dispense its own form of justice to the users, this comes typically in the form of a three strike system.
Some may argue that if fans want to support music artists then they should just “suck it up” and buy the albums. This argument is flawed because it assumes that the profits of the purchase will benefit the artists. While it is true that some of the profits will go to the artists, the split is nowhere close to fair for the artists involved. According to a report done on music sales artists only make $24 for every $1,000 sold. (Jefferson, 2010) Therefore it is in the artists’ best interest (that people buy albums) in the same way that a starving person would prefer a plate with crumbs rather than a plate with nothing on it at all. A new system, one which protects the artists and the fans, is necessary.
It is not hard to imagine what these alternative support systems might look like. The model might function in the same way that it does for radio stations; they pay a recurring fee to play whatever music they like. It might function in the same way that it does with streaming; artists connect directly to their fans and collect donations. In any case, file sharing is not going away. Despite the fear tactics and lawsuits, file sharing is at an all-time high. It is time to change the rules of the game. Artists and fans deserve a system that will allow culture to flourish.
Bylund, A. (2006, August 12). Retrieved from ArsTechnica:
EFF. (2015, June 3). Retrieved from Electronic Frontier Foundation:
DMCA. (1998). Retrieved from U.S. Copyright Office:
Helft, M. (2010, March 18). Technology. Retrieved from New York Times:
Jefferson, C. (2010, July 6). Culture. Retrieved from The Root:
Kravets, D. (2010, September 21). Security. Retrieved from Wired: