Illegal downloading: How do you explain it to the kids?

Globe and Mail article by Erin Anderssen discusses how parents talk to their children about copyright infringement.

I received an e-mail message from Erin about this story. While we didn't arrange an interview, the following is what I wrote to her in an e-mail.


I'm not a parent, but my wife and I are close family friends of parents of twins who will be 3 in September. We are over there visiting and/or babysitting at least 3 times a week.

I would not talk Copyright with them. I consider Copyright too complex even for someone who has spent much of their time in the last decade studying. The more people learn about how Copyright law actually works, the less respect they tend to have for it.

My wife is a high-school teacher, and while she isn't interested in the topic (Copyright puts her to sleep), I can speak to the fact that much of what a teacher does day-to-day in front of students is technically a copyright infringement. It isn't as if students don't pick this up. I don't blame teachers for this, but the complexities of Copyright law.

Due to the excessive penalties that can be levied in the case of Copyright infringement, I will only talk about my own activities. Because of my involvement in Copyright I keep any infringements to a minimum. I don't download movies, music or software from the Internet in ways that would be infringing, something I can't say for nearly everyone else I know.

Most technology users I speak to, parents and otherwise, think of copyright infringement similar to how most drivers think of speeding or improper parking. You can easily think of what parents say when their children catch them speeding, or contacting someone to try to get out of a parking ticket.

There are major differences between copyright infringement and speeding:


  • Speeding has the potential to be far more harmful.
  • They don't fine you a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $20,000 per km/hour you were driving above the speed limit.
  • Ontario doesn't have a maximum speed limit (including for 400 series highways) of 20 km/hour.
  • The government isn't contemplating legislation that would: lower the speed limit, hold automobile manufacturers partly responsible for speeding, deny car owners access to the keys to their own cars, and raise the fines.

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The more people learn about

The more people learn about how Copyright law actually works, the less respect they tend to have for it.

Absolutely. That was basically the point I made this morning on Degan's website.

So many people did not bother to even think about copyright until they were forced to with DRM. Now they think about it and they see countries endlessly extending copyright terms and copyright holders rights being enforced at the end users' expense and they are saying ENOUGH! People don't care about copyright and the lack of respect for copyright is causing people to simply take what they want from the net. The irony of course is that the more governments and corporations squeeze people the more disrespect it will generate for copyright and the more infringement it will generate. The desperate acts to try to enforce copyright are in fact directly responsible for the infringement.

I agree. I'm always reminded

I agree. I'm always reminded of Macaulay's speech in the 1800s on this topic. As he stated (in reference at the time to passing a law that would look weak to what we have today):
(available http://yarchive.net/macaulay/copyright.html)
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I will only say this, that if the measure before us should pass, and should produce one-tenth part of the evil which it is calculated to produce, and which I fully expect it to produce, there will soon be a remedy, though of a very objectionable kind. Just as the absurd acts which prohibited the sale of game were virtually repealed by the poacher, just as many absurd revenue acts have been virtually repealed by the smuggler, so will this law be virtually repealed by piratical booksellers. At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouths of deserving men. Everybody is well pleased to see them restrained by the law, and compelled to refund their ill-gotten gains. No tradesman of good repute will have anything to do with such disgraceful transactions. Pass this law: and that feeling is at an end. Men very different from the present race of piratical booksellers will soon infringe this intolerable monopoly. Great masses of capital will be constantly employed in the violation of the law. Every art will be employed to evade legal pursuit; and the whole nation will be in the plot.

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Seems to me that history has proven him correct... just took a little while longer than he thought.

... Use tasteful words. You may have to eat them.

Repealed by the "pirate"

Here is one of the many problems with this debate. Many people assume that the repeal of Copyright will come in the form of citizens being able to access and manipulate works of the mind without permission or payment.

There are two other options on the table that are far more likely:

a) Copyright's requirement for permission that allowed for a wide variety of business models to be explored would be replaced with government mandated levy systems. This isn't a tax as it doesn't have the accountability/transparency that a tax does, but won't be any easier to avoid paying than taxes.

b) Governments legally protecting non-owner locks on technology, such that it is monopolists in the high tech sector, not copyright, that determines what people can and can not do with creative works. Given technology is used by everyone in the creative process from authors to audiences, these technology companies will be able to dictate to everyone involved.

While my first choice is a well mannered marketplace (things are reasonably made for sale, and people buy them) that looks far closer to historical copyright, there are alternatives that we need to become aware of and prioritise. For me the legal protection for non-owner locks on technology is by far the worst option for everyone concerned (especially people who would previously have been considered copyright holders), but thus far looks like the most likely replacement of Copyright.


Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) consultant.