Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Everyday Pirates: Illegal Music Downloding and International Copyright Law

The relatively new widespread use of the Internet and fast connections has allowed people from all around the world to easily access and download all types of music. This phenomenon has led to many questions about the legality of this practice, especially across borders with differing copyright laws. Peer-to-Peer programs, such as BitTorrent and KaZaA interesting cases of these issues, because the files are not stored in any central location such as a computer hard drive or server, but are shared among users. A website like The Pirate Bay which is essentially a search engine for .torrent files is also difficult to sue (though companies have tried), because it doesn't store nearly enough information about its users to incriminate them. Also, in the specific case of The Pirate Bay, the owners themselves would be difficult to sue because they are located in Sweden where copyright laws are less stringent than in the United States. Although they were raided and taken in for questioning in 2006, the investigation was dropped within three days and the site returned to normal use quickly. Some people in Sweden, including the owners of The Pirate Bay believe that the investigation was conducted with pressure from the United States and organizations like the MPAA and the RIAA. If the government did do this, it is considered a serious violation of of the political norms in Sweden.

These examples bring to light some interesting ways that international law and domestic laws operate. The record companies argue that overseas programs are allowing people to participate in illegal activity within the United States, and thereby their activity is illegal. But can someone be arrested for doing something legal in one country that is illegal in another? For example, if a person bought drug paraphernalia in one country where that drug is legal and the person went back to their home country and used it where it is illegal, how can the paraphernalia maker be held responsible since they did not produce it in an illegal context and could not predict its illegal use?

It is generally agreed upon that people are liable to the laws of the country they reside in and not to the ones they do not live in. There are some exceptions to this rule, however, in international law. When it comes to international copyright law, there are two major agreements. The first is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works which says that any artistic work holds an international copyright the instant it is in a 'fixed' state, no application to hold the copyright is necessary. Most countries eventually signed on to this convention. If they had not, they eventually faced some of the same policies in the second important bill, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This agreement was made through the WTO and is quite far-reaching in its protection of intellectual property rights thanks in part to heavy lobbying from the United States. It also set in place some very specific enforcement mechanisms which give it more weight than the Berne Convention. Getting back to music downloading, some critics of copyright enforcement point to the fact that copyright law is meant to promote unique creations and prevent others from claiming someone's work as their own, not to ensure that the artist or inventor gets every last dime on the duplication of his or her work. Others say that the music industry is to blame for failing to adapt to the digital medium, and is making the wrong choice by suing its current and potential customers for copyright violations.

While I may tend to agree with these general sentiments, most U.S. courts have sided with the record industry on the issue. It should be interesting to see what happens to the music industry both domestically and internationally over the next decade due to these rapid changes in the way that people access and listen to music.

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