Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Copyright Protections, Peer-to-Peer, and Government Overreach

There's a lot of talk lately about net neutrality, with the SOPA Bill in the United States passed or passing through their legislative system, similar overtures here at home, and other such activities abroad. There are those who feel that SOPA opens up all sorts of "fun" abuses of its authority to government, and I can't comment on that, not having read the bill myself. The stated goal, of course, is in the name: Stop On-line Piracy Act.

Piracy is nothing new: my dad used to tell me about recasting records back during the vinyl days, or recording songs from the radio to casette. People like me, who aren't old enough to remember much about the 90s besides the sudden emergence of anime onto North American cable TV, are more likely to think of software and media piracy through Peer-to-Peer protocols like Bittorrent and the ten or fifteen thousand different clients that run the protocol. I'll even go so far as to admit that I used to download videos and music when I was still in my teens, and probably more than my fair share of software as well. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a folder on my computer containing all of the 3.5 Edition Dungeons and Dragons books from Wizards of the Coast, which, to be fair, were no longer in print at the time a friend downloaded them. Go a little further back, and just about everyone can remember a time when stealing software was as easy as installing it from a friend's disk, or simply copying the disk.

 In fairness, I have a decent understanding of why piracy is bad, and that's why I don't engage in the practice. I don't even have any of the old stuff that I did pirate, with the exception of those D&D manuals. And a lot of the stuff I have downloaded in the past, I've since purchased legally: my Microsoft Office suite is fully licensed these days, and I have quite a few disk-images for games whose disks are now too scratched or warped to use. And therein lies my problem with the modern trend in prevention.

There was recently a case where Canadian internet service providers had to be told to stop throttling Peer to Peer download speeds, and shortly afterwards, a bill was introduced at the House of Commons to open a legal door for the practice to resume. The problem there is that Peer to Peer protocols like BitTorrent have legitimate uses, and clear advantages over direct server-to-client download. For example, Blizzard, makers of the popular World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft franchises, use a peer-to-peer based client to decrease the time it takes to download patch files and updates for their modern games, WoW and Starcraft II. This speed increase is nullified when ISPs like Bell Aliant throttle back your internet speed.

I have no problem with anti-piracy measures, like DRM protection, authentication protocols, and other software-specific limitations. What I do have a problem with is people who don't understand how P2P works preventing people from using it for legitimate uses. The speed increases from P2P sharing are clear, especially for extremely large files. It reminds me of a period in history where encryption software, until rather recently, was subject to strict scrutiny and even in some cases considered a weapon under various anti-espionage acts.

I'm all for copyright protection. I'm a writer, I have to be. It's my bread and butter, or would be, if I got paid for anything I write. Taking that out of my mouth would be wrong. That's why I pay for my music now, why I buy movies, why I buy software licenses. But preventing me from using a powerful tool for legitimate purposes is a criminal misuse of time and legal authority. It would be like telling Chefs they could no longer use knives, since you can also use a knife to stab someone.

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