July 10, 2006
One interesting thing about intellectual property is that unlike other forms of theft, you can take something and still leave the original intact. The other interesting thing is how much of a part technology has always played in copyright. In fact, it could be argued that the whole notion of copyright was brought about because of technology; copyright initially covered only printed material, which, prior to Gutenberg's printing press, was particularly time-consuming to duplicate. Likewise, the movie industry didn't worry too much about consumers copying their work until the VCR came along.

Because of these two factors, the average person doesn't really think of copyright violation as a crime. After all, no one gets hurt, and the victim still has the original product. And unlike, say, breaking into a house, copying usually requires no special skill or effort, and the infringer never sees the victim or any effects of the crime. The result is that copyright infringement on a personal level is largely determined by ethics and sympathy.

When it becomes easy to copy, people begin to assume they have the right to copy just because it's so easy. Actually, in many cases they do have that right, at least in the United States— making copies for personal use falls under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law. However, copying something you don't own, or giving a copy of something to someone else, violates copyright.

I'll be the first to admit that until the early 1990s, I traded tapes left and right, like most other determined animation fans. However, it's now a pretty rare event for me. The change of heart started when three things happened at around the same time: I was studying animation at university, I started publishing fps, and I started doing freelance work—writing, and occasional animation and voice work—on the side.

When you find yourself defending your own copyrights—especially when those copyrights are your bread and butter—you begin to feel like a hypocrite when you copy someone else's work. But did I stop copying stuff altogether? Of course not. Everyone breaks copyright law at some point; they just have to find their personal boundary. I only copy music if I honestly intend to buy it at a later date (I even scrupulously maintain a list of these titles for my shopping sprees), and I don't copy any videos that are otherwise legitimately available.

Some people say I put too much thought into things like this, but I'm not the only one. Search through Usenet archives of rec.arts.anime and you'll find discussions about copyright you won't find anywhere else in animation fandom. In an interesting example of personal ethics writ large, anime fans found a way to reconcile their jones for new anime while still supporting the artists they cared about: freely trading tapes in the original Japanese was fine, but charging was taboo; and if a title was legitimately distributed in the West, then any fan-subtitled versions were pulled out of circulation. Incredibly, this has almost acquired the force of law in the anime fan community; try to sell copies of Samurai Gun at a convention and you'll be blacklisted so fast it'll make your head spin.

Anime fans will be the first to point out that copying tapes provided exposure to anime in North America, and I agree with that—so much so, I wrote an article titled "Piracy Is Good (Sometimes)" early last year for Maisonneuve magazine that made the case that it was illegal copying that allowed anime to gain a foothold over here in the first place. However, this is still a case of personal ethics and sympathy allowing people to rationalize infringing someone else's copyright. I don't mean to hurt anyone, the logic goes, so I shouldn't be punished.

But even though fans are often legally guilty while remaining ethically innocent (however imperfectly), corporate copyright owners rarely have clean hands themselves. More on that next time.

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