Copyright is Copynot:
Why the online distribution of entertainment media is entirely broken
On a four hour plane flight home, I was excited by the airplane’s entertainment system built into my seat. On the touch screen in front of me lied music, movies, games, TV shows, really anything one could possibly want on a plane flight. The best part? It was entirely free! Naturally, I browsed through the selection of animated shows, and when I could not find any of my favorites, I decided to watch the most glorious show I’d never seen before: Star vs. the Forces of Evil. Needless to say I loved it, so much so that after the flight I found a place to watch it online and I watched the entire first season. After a season, I knew I wanted to help support the show’s creators, and I decided to purchase the next set of episodes.
This is where the nightmare begins; after comparing prices on various platforms, I decided to not purchase the content on iTunes where I normally do, but on Google Play because it’s 3 dollars cheaper (it’s also fair to say I was curious as to what features Google’s media service offered that iTunes didn’t). But after I pushed that purchase button, I was confused, shocked, and angry to discover that there was no download button, no place for me to physically acquire the data I just spent my money for. All I received were links to watch the episode online, essentially the same thing I had before my purchase. You could, however, download the episodes on your phone, so I spent several hours tracking down the location of the files and copying them over to my computer only to not be able to convert them to a usable format because of Google’s DRM, Widevine, which stores the data encrypted.
I know I’m not alone in this struggle; thousands of people face the same dilemma when it comes to accessing their favorite movies and TV shows. Online services make it seem as easy as ever to acquire a copy of what you love, but only after purchase is the customer informed of invisible restrictions placed on what they thought was their copy. In reality, the customer is never given ownership anything, and access to “their” media can easily be stripped away from them at any time.
To explain how this mess came about, it’s essential to discuss copyright. Copyright is the exclusive right of a creator to control the copying of their work, thus giving them control over its distribution. It’s intended to be an incentive for creators; by giving them exclusive control over distribution, the creator is allowed to profit from their work by selling copies, and the creator is protected from others stealing their work. This balances against the rights of the consumer; when they purchase a work, they gain the right to use it in specific ways, but not to copy or redistribute it.
Copyright law worked really well in the past when media was physical, and thus difficult to copy. A movie on film isn’t easily duplicated, so it’s easy to monitor what copies are made and how they are distributed. The same tends to be true with vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CD/DVD/BluRay, except that as technology improved, copying all of the above became possible. However, it was still possible to distinguish between what was copying, and what was appropriate use. Playing a CD on the home sound system, in the car, or even ripping the music to your computer was all fine, but burning an exact copy of the CD wasn’t. However, in the digital age, copyright law breaks down entirely because all digital resources are just ones and zeros that are copied around constantly; from moving files within a machine to fetching web pages, every aspect of computation involves copying data from one location to another. To own a digital copy of a work is to have its data on disk and thus be able to copy it (hopefully not to let other pirate it).
Media giants have responded in an interesting way to this dilemma. Instead of allowing for a work to be copied within reason, the trend is to not allow copies at all. To their credit, this has led to some very useful services; sites like Spotify and Netflix allow access to databases full of music, movies, and television shows as long as the customer keeps paying and doesn’t violate the terms of service. The trouble comes in when a customer doesn’t want to rent their media from a third party, but own it for good. Services like iTunes and Google Play appear to let a customer do just that, but behind the scenes, they do the same exact thing Netflix does, allowing you access to their content without letting you own a copy. Even if they let the customer download their media as a file, that file is usually encrypted/protected by DRM such that the customer cannot access its data without using a client provided by the service, thus the service still controls the customer’s access.
This control essentially means the customer never owns their media. Instead of being able to buy media and play it anywhere, the customer is limited to buying a jukebox with their media trapped inside it. Sure, one can play their media from inside the jukebox, but there’s no way a customer can take a large jukebox wherever they want, and since the customer doesn’t know how the jukebox works, if it breaks they lose all access to their media. This analogy directly maps to the digital market; the inability to store and play media on every device with any operating system is analogous with the inability to move the jukebox, and the possibility of the box breaking is analogous to the media player becoming unsupported or accounts being suspended. And even if the media giants will always support your platform, what’s preventing them from deciding Movie X and TV Show Y aren’t profitable and denying you access to them?
The irony of it all is that if a person instead pirates a film, they will not have to worry about device compatibility or using the right media player or needing an internet connection to watch it. They can just play the media on any device without problem while the rest of us paying customers struggle to gain access to content. This means there’s no incentive to actually buying the media other than to support the creators; the pirates simply offer a better product and at no cost.
Copyright is intended to protect creators by giving them control over the distribution of its copies. However, instead of allowing copies to legally be made, media corporations instead sell refutable access to a copy under the false guise that the customer owns this media. This is not copyright, this is copynot. It encourages piracy as it is the only way to obtain any copy of media, and it takes freedoms away from the people who actually want to support the industry by buying media from creators. To say the least, this system does not work, and it’s very painful to me, a consumer, to never be able to own a copy of what I love despite paying money for it.