When it comes to copyright and consumers' rights, there are some things I've been meaning to get off my chest for a long time. It's really the comments on websites like Destructoid.com that have spurred me to write this. You see, as abhorrent as the behavior of corporations is in doing whatever they can to strip consumers of their rights, I don't really expect anything else from them. No, what shocks me is the consistent, bizarre occurrence of CONSUMERS lining up to take their side. "Serves you right, you should have read your EULA." "Oh, those hackers are getting what they deserve." There's no milder way to put this than fucking pathetic. I don't think those shortsighted people who are trying to make consumer rights a thing of the past ever in their wildest dreams imagined that a significant minority of consumers would voluntarily do their job for them. I'm here to explain why these people are wrong. COPYRIGHT: IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK
We're so used now to the idea of copyright as the bludgeon wielded against us by rights holders that we've completely forgotten that it was created to strike a balance. The idea behind copyright is that, in order to encourage innovation in culture, the creators of works should be given a fair opportunity to profit from them. At the same time, however, it was understood that giving these rights holders too tight of a control over their property would stifle innovation and inhibit the development of culture - after all, culture is ultimately the property of the society, and derivative works have spawned some of history's greatest works as well as entire new genres within which refreshing original work proliferates. Therefore, copyright was given certain exceptions in order to strike a balance between these two important concerns. These include fair use, the right of first sale, and the public domain.
The public domain, sadly, has been legislated out of existence in the United States - a grave error that demonstrates how lawmakers are bought and paid for by those with the money. The originally reasonable amount of time for which copyright lasted has been repeatedly extended and there's no end in sight. People find a way, however, and no amount of treating consumers as criminals will really prevent the free exchange of ideas that forms the gears of culture.
Fair use is an exception that allows the use of parts of copyrighted works for the purposes of parody, satire, commentary, review and demonstration, among other reasons. Its provisions are kept deliberately vague because whether a use is fair is something that needs to be decided by examining a case on its own. Of course, the position of many intellectual property holders these days is that no use should be considered fair, and they'll push that envelope wherever they can. THE RIGHT TO OWN WHAT WE BUY SHOULD NOT BE SURRENDERED LIGHTLY This seal never had anything to do with quality.
Before I get to my last point, here's a fun bit of history for you. Many people on the Internet seem misguided about console makers' "Seals of quality" from the 90s - both Nintendo and Sega had one. When a bad game is published, I see people growl that this never would have happened with the seal of quality, and that they should bring it back. This is pretty funny because the seals were totally unrelated to quality - if the Nintendo seal were around today, Ninjabread Man would bear it proudly. What the seals were was an attempt by Nintendo and Sega to dissuade consumers from buying unlicensed games for their consoles, created by reverse engineering the hardware. Unlicensed games have always been a big part of the video game industry, though - Activision, who created most of the games for the Atari 2600 that were actually any good, started as an unlicensed publisher.
"Hacking," or reverse engineering, has been around as long as computers have - longer, really, but it was with computers that it got dubbed "hacking." The term is totally unrelated to the "hacking" that refers to malicious activity on a computer network, although companies love this bit of confluence because it makes it easy to vilify the reverse engineering community. "Hackers," they can spit. Sounds bad.
I can't imagine where we'd be today without hacking. Countless innovations have come from hacking, and countless professionals got their start at it. It's a natural impulse to get into the hardware you own and mess around, learning and creating in the process. The computers we use and video games we play today have hacking in their roots. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a profoundly stupid piece of legislation made possible by the technological ignorance of lawmakers, tried to make reverse engineering illegal in the United States, but it hasn't really stuck. It's too basic a right.
It's astonishingly nearsighted of Nintendo, Microsoft Sony, and Apple to fight hackers tooth and nail the way they do. Instead of drawing inspiration from talented people who constantly discover new, better ways to use their hardware, they have chosen again to treat their customers like criminals. And every time this comes up, I see comments like "Serves those pirates right!" and "Why would any gamer defend this?" Hacking. Is. Not. Piracy. Take Wiibrew.org for example, home of the awesome Wii Homebrew community. They've got tons of great homebrew software, and even bringing up piracy or "backups" gets you tossed. I've been enjoying homebrew on my Wii for years, and I've never used it for piracy. It really gets me mad when people act like homebrew is a thin excuse for piracy - it's not, it's an exciting way to get more use out of your hardware.
There have been some troubling developments recently regarding consumers' rights; I fear that they are eroding as we speak. My big concern is that digital distribution will be used as an excuse to totally strip consumers of their right to own what they buy, which is needless and stupid. All I ask, though - the point of my argument - is that we should, as consumers, advocate consumers' rights and fight for them instead of making things easy on those who would take them away by taking their side.
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