Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


Why copying isn’t the same as shoplifting

DRM doesn’t work to prevent copying. It cannot work to prevent copying (it can only work to prevent legitimate users from using content in the ways they’d like to, and to turn them into criminals when they do it anyway). Therefore, file trading will continue. It can be made illegal, but then, you have to define the illegal behavior. In the case of a store, that’s easy. There’s a physical item you’re not allowed to walk away with. In the case of a piece of content, it’s not so easy.

There are a few parallel concerns:

1) Is viewing a piece of content “copying”? Does it “use up” the content in any way? What’s being “stolen”?

2) What qualifies as “fair use”? To what extent do the rights of the content owners trump the rights of the consumer?

3) Should copy restriction also allow the content producer to decide, after the fact, things like “you’re only allowed to watch Six Feet Under for two weeks, then you have to buy the DVD”?

Okay, so set that aside for a minute and assume you’ve come up with a good definition of what’s illegal copying. Should it be illegal to make technology to copy files? I’d argue no, since that technology has lots of legitimate uses, some of which are more valuable to society than the content industry. Should it be illegal to run a network linking to copyable files? Possibly, but I’d argue that such a law is actually, in real terms, unenforceable without outlawing the technology to do so. Should it be illegal to copy a file as an end user? Maybe, but I’d also argue that suing your customers is not the best way to convince people to buy your products.

My point here is not that content producers should be giving away their work for free, but that they need to realize that any of the avenues they have for enforcing their ability to demand money are the start of a very bad arms race that is good for no one, and we all need to sit down and figure out sane business models whereby people get paid for their work. Content producers think they have “all the power”, when in fact, they should have none, and they fact that they have any at all is a testament to how loudly they stand up and complain. I believe that consumers need to assert their rights now, before they’re all gone, for lack of trying.

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