For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project — www.gutenberg.net.) Anyway there’s something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).
Now, let’s suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare… am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).
It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.
Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don’t remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.
If it were a book, Disney’s copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author’s estate’s permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.
But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only “rented”. (b) Disney has “remastered” the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there’s no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.
But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it’s possible to “rip” DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD’s total content duration. From there it’s a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).
It really doesn’t matter. Let’s suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there’s pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.
In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) — and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they’ll be wrong and human intervention will be required — so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.