Category Archives: Copyright

A Thursday in December

Starring Gandalf the Grey.

It’s probably best thought of as a sound collage, and one that I find strangely relaxing.

Continue reading

The EU’s proposed “link tax”: a modest proposal

Despite the disastrous effects of the same policy in Spain, the European Union is flirting with the idea of a link tax. This autumn’s proposals for copyright reform in Europe might contain all sorts of good things — not least, Hargreaves-like rules for content-mining — there is also the real possibility that they will also propose requiring payment for linking to content.


Continue reading

A short, practical, quiz: figure out where you stand on copyright

Here are a series of hypothetical scenarios. For each one, decide whether or not you think it’s morally acceptable. (Ignore, for now, the related but distinct question of whether it’s legal.)

Question 1 (easy). You buy a CD and listen to it on your CD player. Morally OK or not? If OK, continue; if not, go to Section A.

Question 2. You also want to listen to the CD on your iPod, so you rip it to MP3. You listen to the CD at home, and the iPod when out walking. If OK, continue; if not, go to Section B.

Question 3. You buy and rip not just a single CD, but 100. If not OK, go to Section C.

Question 4. You find the iPod so convenient that you also use it at home. You no longer listen to the CDs — they just sit there on the shelf. If not OK, go to Section D.

Question 5. You need to reclaim the shelf-space that the CDs are taking up, so you put all the CDs in a cardboard box in your attic and leave them there gathering dust. If not OK, go to Section E.

Question 6. Your attic is getting overcrowded and you realise that you’re never going to listen to the physical CDs again, so you take them down to the local tip and dump them in landfill. If not OK, go to Section F.

Question 7. You’re just about to chuck the CDs in the landfill when you realise that there are plenty of people who would still find them useful, so you take then to Oxfam instead and donate them. If not OK, go to Section G.

Question 8. None of the above happened. Instead, you simply pirated MP3 files for 100 albums that you never owned. If not OK, go to Section H.

Finally, if you’re still here (i.e. you thought all those scenarios were morally OK), go to Section I.

Before you read the interpretations below, please take a moment to fill in the poll — it will be interesting to see how public sentiment leans.

The interpretations

Section A. Buying and listening to a CD is wrong. Your position is surprising to me, but I guess it’s a free country.

Section B. Ripping the CD to MP3 is wrong. That is surprising, given that the entire enormous trade in MP3 players is clearly predicated on the ability to do just that. Evidently you believe that you should buy the same album twice: once on CD, and once as MP3s. (Incidentally, the legality of ripping your own CDs is complex. For a long time it was illegal in the UK, then it was made legal for a year or so; recently, I understand it’s become illegal again.)

Section C. Buy and ripping 100 CDs is wrong. If you think it’s OK to buy and rip one CD but not 100, then I think you must be mistaken. Surely morality can’t be a matter of quantity? If 100 murders are wrong, then so is one murder.

Section D. No longer using the CDs, just MP3s, is wrong. How can it be wrong to choose not to use your own property?

Section E. Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong. How can it be morally different to keep the same goods in one part of your house or another? How is a shelf more moral than an attic?

Section F. Dumping the CDs in landfill is wrong. But do we not have the right to do what we wish with our own legitimately acquired property? And how is there any practical difference between the CDs being ignored in an attic until they degrade, and being dumped in a hole in the ground to degrade immediately?

Section G. Giving the CDs to Oxfam is wrong. So we think it’s better to destroy a thing than to allow others to benefit from it? Isn’t that just as silly as thinking that it’s better for cafes to destroy their left-over food than to give it to homeless people? Destroying value is never appealing.

Section H. Pirating MP3s instead of buying CDs is wrong. And yet the practical outcome of this scenario is exactly the same as the previous one: you have MP3 files that you didn’t pay for. How can one of these outcomes be OK and the other not?

Section I. All of these scenarios are morally OK. That at least is a consistent position. But it does seem to imply that copyright can morally be completely ignored.


My position is a strange one. The more I think about this, the more I think that all of these positions outlined above are unsatisfactory. Some (like “Buying and listening to a CD is wrong”) are self-evident nonsense. Some (like “Putting the CDs in the attic is wrong”) are obviously nonsense. The final position — that it’s morally OK to simply ignore copyright — has a certain appeal, but my moral intuition doesn’t like it.

So what is the right solution? And why?

e-Book piracy: a moral dilemma

Here is a moral dilemma that I’ve not seen discussed before — maybe surprisingly, since it’s one that I imagine lots of us have run into. However I think through this, it leads me to a stupid conclusion. Can anyone help me to see what mistake I’m making?


Continue reading

To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine example of how copyright is failing us all

I read this recent piece on how Harper Lee has finally allowed an e-book edition of her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, to be produced. Of course, in the absence of an authorised e-book that readers can pay for, there are plenty of unauthorised ones — it’s trivial to find on any torrent site. My eye was caught by a comment on the article, discussing the existence of these pirate e-books:

This is sad, but doesn’t surprise me. Its the reality of the world we live in today. I suspect the biggest purchasers of this e-book will be over the age of 40 – those under don’t tend to realise the purpose or value of copyright.

That is exactly wrong.

Continue reading

Artwork for The Eleventh Doctor book

Regulars will remember from earlier this month that I’m writing a book about the  Eleventh Doctor. I’m really happy with the way the cover turned out, and also with this illustration that I put together for the introduction to the Series 6 section:


Continue reading

A movie-piracy moral dilemma

We saw The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey in the cinema when it came out, and with reservations loved it. Today I get notification from Amazon that the DVD is available for pre-order, at £17.20. That seems a bit steep, but it’s definitely a film we’ll watch repeatedly so I might buy it.

Except that Peter Jackson has confirmed that there will be an extended edition (with 20-25 minutes more screen time, and hopefully a shedload of documentaries). So it’s a dead cert that I’ll buy that when it comes out. We love the LotR extended editions.


My question is this: since the regular-edition DVD is a subset of the extended-edition DVD that I’m going to buy, is it morally acceptable to pirate the regular edition when it becomes available, watch that, and then buy the extended DVD?

How I came to buy the DVD of series 2 of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

A true story:

  • My favourite author in the world is C. S. Lewis. I’ve read everything of his that I’ve been able to find, most of it four or five times. I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve read the Narnia books.
  • Long ago (in Internet years) I searched for a C. S. Lewis FAQ, and found one that was written by someone called Andrew Rilstone.
  • I started reading the rest of Rilstone’s web-site (as it then was), then his blog once he started writing in that format. Highly recommended, by the way: full of insight, wit, and a gloriously eclectic mix of high literature and pop-culture.
  • One of the more frequent commenters on Rilstone’s blog was Andrew Hickey, whose blog Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! I also started to read.
  • In one of Hickey’s link round-ups, he linked to an article about James Ward’s fruitless efforts to change his name to James Ward.
  • I immediately liked Ward’s blog, I Like Boring Things, and started to keep an eye on it. (Also highly recommended, by the way. He repeatedly demonstrates that, really, nothing is boring.)
  • A post on Ward’s blog included a video of his talk at The Lost Lectures. At about 4:55 on the video he very briefly mentions Stewart Lee’s book How I Escaped My Certain Fate [,]. It was the first time I’d heard of Lee.
  • On a whim, I bought the book — something I can hardly explain, as Ward in his video says nothing at all about it except that it quotes someone else he wants to discuss. It turned out to be very funny and insightful. Among other things, it mentioned Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, a TV series (consisting so far of two seasons of six episodes each.)
  • Having read quite a bit of Lee’s stand-up (the book contains exhaustively annotated transcripts of three of his full-length shows), I was interested to see how it worked in performance, so I torrented the first series [,].
  • And then I liked that so much that I bought the second series on DVD [; doesn’t exist on except as an expensive region-2 import].


There are a few things we can learn from this.

  • You can’t predict how a sale will be made. There’s nothing Stewart Lee could possibly have done to make this sale happen. It happened because of chance, and also because he is good at what he does. My conclusion? You can’t control the chance, but you can control whether your’re good at what you do. Be good.
  • Over a period of a decade, the Internet can take you somewhere very different from where you started. Part of why I love C. S. Lewis’s writing is because it shines such a clear light on, and through, Christianity. Stewart Lee is absolutely not any kind of Christian. But I love his work because there is a common thread of insight and wit that leads through Lewis, Rilstone, Hickey and Ward to Lee.
  • Piracy is good. It leads to sales. If I had not been able to pirate Comedy Vehicle series 1, many publishers like to think the alternative would be that I’d have bought it instead. But I wouldn’t; the only difference would have been that I’d never have seen series 1 so I’d never have bought series 2 either.
  • Finally, unavailability leads to piracy. Since series 2 of Comedy Vehicle is not available as a region-1 DVD at any price, Americans who want to watch it have a choice: buy an overpriced import and watch it on an illegally region-unlocked player, or torrent it. Which do they imagine will happen?

The publishers of Comedy Vehicle can only hope that Americans will torrent series 2 and like it enough to buy series 1 — the opposite of what I did.

Oppose SOPA, PIPA and the RWA

Today is a big day for the Internet.  Nearly everyone reading this site will be aware of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two appallingly ill-conceived pieces of legislation under consideration in the US but with profound ramifications for the whole world.  Written at the behest of big copyright holders by people with no understanding of how the Internet works either mechanically or culturally, they would be absolutely disastrous if passed.

In response to this, many high-profile web-sites are demonstrating the results such laws would have by going dark for the day.  They include Reddit and, most importantly, Wikipedia.  (Also, the entire Cheezburger network and many, many others.)  We can only hope that this distributed demonstration results not just in SOPA and PIPA being rejected, but in an emphatic smackdown that makes it impossible for similarly dumb legislation to get mind-space in the future.

But there is another threat also making its way through the US Congress — less publicised but also hugely important.

Continue reading

Well, that about wraps it up for copyright

I just read this article on TechDirt: EU Officially Seizes The Public Domain, Retroactively Extends Copyright.  As the article says, “This is nothing short of governments and the entertainment industry seizing works from the public domain”.  Let’s be clear: it’s theft.  It’s a matter of big companies (and it should surprise no-one that record labels have lobbied aggressively for this) stealing content that belongs to you and me, and taking it for themselves.

In fact, let’s call it exactly what it is: piracy.

And the shocking thing is, this piracy is not a crime.  It’s legally sanctioned.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Continue reading