The 3 Types of Copyright Conversations

Outstretched ManTalking about copyright and copyright-related issues is tough. Not only do passions tend to run very high and there is a lot of misinformation out there to contend with, but if often times feels as if two people are discussing (or even arguing over) two completely unrelated points.

The problem is simple. On matters of copyright there are three different types of conversations that you can have. The problem is that people tend to switch between these conversations without meaning to and make points that go right past what the other person was trying to say.

This, in turn, is what makes posts like my recent on the 5 Ways Content Creators Can Cause Piracy, very difficult to publish. Not because the points aren’t valid, but because people look at a conversation in one area, and take it as an assault on another.

If we’re going to have solid, progress-oriented conversations on copyright we need to understand the three different types of copyright conversations and learn how to focus our dialog on one at a time. Otherwise, we’re just talking past one another without making any headway.

The 3 Types of Copyright Conversations

On matters of copyright, there are, more or less, three ways you can discuss it:

  1. Ethical: Ethical conversations on copyright deal with what is moral or right. This includes statements such as “It’s wrong to steal from artists” and “The real thieves are studios…” These conversations are almost impossible to have because the opinions on the ethics of copyright vary so wildly from person to person.
  2. Legal: Legal conversations deal exclusively with the law and what is and is not infringement. Issues such as the legality of piracy, fair use and potential damages all fall under this umbrella. These conversations are generally easier to have because the law is more or less universal. Still, with so many gray areas in copyright law, there’s plenty of room for debate and discussion.
  3. Practical: Finally, there’s practical issues that deal with what happens in the “real world” so to speak. Issues such as how product availability affects piracy or who is the most likely group to download illegal files fall under this category. These discussions are difficult only because it’s so difficult to get good, solid information in this field.

Each of these conversations are, almost always, wholly separate. You can’t have a conversation about the legal element of copyright law and use an ethical argument to make a counter-point. Yet, this is something that happens all the time.

Consider this hypothetical conversation:

Person A: It’s wrong to steal from others, by pirating you are committing theft. (Ethical Argument)
Person B: But if the content was available at a price I could afford, I wouldn’t pirate at all. (Practical Argument)
Person C: That doesn’t matter, it’s illegal and copyright holders will be coming after you! (Legal Argument)

In three quick lines of an exchange they used all three types of arguments, switching the conversation each time. However, nothing was actually said of value and both sides will likely just walk away more resolute in their position.

In short, having a discussion about copyright on the Web isn’t just about education or perception, but about two or more sides talking past one another on different fronts, often without realizing it.

Fixing the Problem

The only way to fix the problem is for people to be aware of it and start trying to focus the conversation on the topic at hand.

For example, while, ethically, I agree completely that nothing the content creator does should cause them to be pirated, the fact of the matter is that it does from a practical standpoint. However, most of the feedback I got on my recent post dealt with the ethics of piracy, not the practical realities.

On Plagiarism Today, I try to focus the bulk of my energy on the legal and the practical elements of the conversation. I’m here to help smaller content creators and a debate on the ethics of piracy, as tempting as it is sometimes, doesn’t do much to help in the real world.

So, for the most part, I leave the ethics discussion to others.

However, I think we all (and I include myself here) need to be more aware of the conversation that we are having and work harder to keep the discussion within it. It’s not easy when emotions get involved, but its crucial for the dialog to do any good.

Bottom Line

Copyright, piracy, Web freedom, privacy, etc. are all emotionally-charged topics but they are also absolutely critical to the future of the Web and our culture as a whole. It’s worth taking the time to get these conversations right.

I’m admittedly no saint here myself, but a little focus can go a long way into having a productive and useful conversation. When two sides focus on talking about the issue in front of them and find common ground there, a lot can happen in a short period of time.

I learned this first hand at SXSW and would like to see others enjoy the same kind of fruitful conversation.

It might help things a little bit more peaceful and a lot more productive.

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