Is Peer-to-Peer Sharing The Same As Stealing?

Posted by: Kenji Hall on August 1, 2008

“This debate of piracy vs. business is a false proposition.” If Jamie King’s statement sounds anti-Establishment, that’s exactly how he intended for everyone to hear it. King is a member of the League of Noble Peers, a Britain-based group that made the 32-minute documentary, Steal This Film (and Steal This Film II), which looks at online peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing and the anti-copyright protections movement that’s grown up around the practice. Released in 2006 through the very online P2P networks it profiles, Steal This Film went on to become a cult hit on the Internet, and has been downloaded more than 4 million times (the numbers are contested by many).

King’s message resonates with many Netizens. His view is that Big Media’s traditional lock on the distribution of films (and music and other creative content, for that matter) through copyright restrictions is irrelevant online, and go against the very ideals of free sharing that the Net was built on. That was what he spoke about during a keynote yesterday at the iCommons summit being held in Sapporo, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

He’s been shouted down at film festivals and branded public enemy No. 1 by the film industry. But the iCommons gathering (the first was held in 2005 at Harvard University) isn’t necessarily the ideal place for him to propogate his ideas, either. Yes, the iCommons—an outgrowth of the Creative Commons, which offers an online alternative to traditional copyright protections—does encourage people to share their creative works. For three days there have been workshops, speeches and discussions about how artists, musicians, academics and scientists have the option of putting their works in the public domain, specifying how their works can be used by others, or using works readily available without having to deal with copyright laws. But King doesn’t believe the Creative Commons is a solution. In fact, he’s all for an online free-for-all.

You have to give credit to the Creative Commons staff for inviting a contrarian like King. Not many agree with King’s agenda. Creative Commons licenses help people control how their works are used, minus the lawyers. The licenses reflect the organization’s feeling that copyright laws are outdated but their intention isn’t to flout the laws—as King would hope. That’s why King is such a skeptic of the Creative Commons. “It hasn’t changed the world, it isn’t going to,” says King.

So in many ways King muddies the message. Ask Anthony Falzone, executive director of Stanford University’s Fair Use Project for Internet and Society. Falzone was here to coach documentary filmmakers—which might be any ordinary person who owns a video camera—about something called “fair use”.

That’s a legal term that describes the idea that you’re free to reuse data on the Web as long as you’re not simply taking it and reselling it and you’re using it as part of a creative work to make a statement.

Here’s Falzone: “Fair use has nothing to do with people putting films or music or other things up on bit torrent and peer-to-peer file sharing. That’s not what fair use is about. It’s a totally separate question. Fair use is about your right to use copyright stuff and to say something new and create something new in a reasonable and circumscribed way. It doesn’t give you license to distribute the next Hollywood film over Bit Torrent. What [King] is doing is part of an important public policy debate. But in my mind, there’s really no overlap [between King’s views and the Creative Commons].”

Well, not exactly.

One of the objectives of the conference is to have people exchange ideas about how to turn this culture of sharing and free distribution into a business. King didn't make money off his films--not initially at least. He dropped $5,000 on the first film, and around $30,000. Donations covered some of that, and his group also got cash from charitable foundations. But his films became so widely watched partly because they were free. And that has intriqued some companies--such as Lionsgate and Mercury Media--that have approached him. He's even sold the rights to both of the films ("a commercial cut, kind of like the 'best of'," he says) to Channel 4 in Britain, for an undisclosed sum. The piracy-cum-business model won't work for everyone, and not all of his pals at the League of Noble Peers agrees. "I was trying to encourage them to develop their own ideas of what a business is," he says.

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