If I forward an email from my MP to a local news outlet without that MP’s written permission, that’s an infringement of Crown Copyright. I copy and paste some text from an online newspaper article. That’s probably an infraction of their terms and conditions. If I take a video of my son with a couple of seconds of The Simpsons on a TV screen in the background, and publish said video on YouTube, lawyers for Fox might send me a letter. I sing new lyrics to the tune of a 1950’s hit in public, and I’m facing a claim from the rights holders. Legal and contract restrictions are everywhere, whether I realise it or not.
When Cory Doctorow addressed MSFT in June 2004 with the words “Greetings fellow pirates!”, it was in reference to the fact that intellectual property rights are now so broad that it’s practically impossible for anyone living in the Western world not to infringe them. While the music and film industries point to wholesale “piracy”, the more significant form is what we might call “retail piracy” – casual, sometimes unconscious infractions committed by otherwise law abiding citizens, all the time.
Perhaps the most extreme example of retail piracy can be seen in the recent Lily Allen anti-piracy statements. She states her views loudly in public, and I assume in good faith, yet apparently sees no moral turpitude in fact that her career has been at least partially facilitated by copyright abuse. Not once, but repeatedly. This is retail piracy in public, which is largely ignored by the media. If she’d been caught seeding copies of the latest Watchman film over Bittorrent, then such “wholesale piracy” would be news.
So it’s clearly not now an issue of whether to infringe copyright, but how much infringement is acceptable. When is piracy too much piracy? Things are definitely in a confusing state when people are forced to decide on a daily basis what degree of compliance to apply to a law.
Of course, we also have tax evasion, benefit and insurance fraud, but retail piracy is fundamentally different. Retail piracy is what the public domain has now become.