Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why Piracy Is Indispensable For The Survival Of Our Culture

Last Year Techdirt wrote about the case of the huge collection of historic jazz recordings that had been acquired by the US National Jazz Museum. The central problem is that even if the recordings can be digitized before they deteriorate, very few people will hear them because of their complicated copyright status.

But as this eye-opening article from Benj Edwards explains, bad as that situation is, it's even worse for the entire category of software creations. For example, consider the earlier generation of floppy-based programs:

Floppy disks, which were once used as the medium du jour for personal computers, have a decidedly finite lifespan: estimates for the data retention abilities of a floppy range anywhere from one year to 30 years under optimal conditions.

A floppy stores data in the form of magnetic charges on a specially treated plastic disc. Over time, the charges representing data weaken to the point that floppy drives can’t read them anymore. At that point, the contents of the disk are effectively lost.

This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late.

Actually, the situation is even worse than that, because software publishers in the 1980s spent a huge amount of effort trying to make it impossible to copy their programs, through the use of things like hardware dongles that had to be plugged into the computer, or intentionally-corrupt sectors on the discs. That makes the creation of backups a non-trivial matter.

Fortunately, getting around such schemes is just the kind of challenge that hackers enjoy, and this has led to efforts by enthusiasts to preserve these fast-disappearing cultural artefacts by transferring them from the old media to more modern storage. As Edwards explains:

For the past decade, collectors and archivists have been compiling vast collections of out-of-print software for vintage machines (think Apple II, Commodore 64, and the like) and trading them through file sharing services and on "abandonware" websites. Through this process, they’ve created an underground software library that, despite its relative newness, feels like the lost archives of an ancient digital civilization.
That's great, apart from one slight problem: under today's copyright laws, all these wonderful backups that will probably ensure the programs' survival while civilization itself is still around, are illegal. The choice is stark: follow copyright law, and watch decades of computer culture literally fade away on their unreadable floppies, or save them for posterity - and break the law.

Nor is this is a problem that only concerns antediluvian forms of computing. Our cool, smartphone- and tablet-based approach is no better:

take a look at the iTunes App Store, a 500,000 app repository of digital culture. It’s controlled by a single company, and when it closes some day (or it stops supporting older apps, like Apple already did with the classic iPod), legal access to those apps will vanish. Purchased apps locked on iDevices will meet their doom when those gadgets stop working, as they are prone to do. Even before then, older apps will fade away as developers decline to pay the $100 a year required to keep their wares listed in the store.
This is a deep and fundamental problem with not just computing culture, but all artistic expression that is locked down with DRM. The only way that its glories will be preserved for future generations is if considerate "pirates" make illegal back-up copies, stripped of copy protection. For DRM is a guarantee of oblivion: the term of copyright is so disproportionately long, few will care about breaking ancient DRM to make backups of long-forgotten digital creations when it eventually becomes legally permissible to do so.

Edwards concludes with a call to action:

If you see strict DRM and copy protection that threatens the preservation of history, fight it: copy the work, keep it safe, and eventually share it so it never disappears.

Some people may think ill of your archival efforts now, but they’re on the wrong side of history: no one living 500 years from now will judge your infringing deeds harshly when they can load up an ancient program and see it for themselves.

This is a crucial point: whatever qualms people might have about piracy now, posterity will have no doubts whatsoever. It's not simply that the supposed harms of piracy to culture are exaggerated, as more and more evidence suggests: it's that in the long term, piracy is actually indispensable for its preservation.

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View the original article here


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