While there's been a big ongoing discussion in various courtrooms concerning the question of whether or not making unauthorized files available
for download is copyright infringement, there's another interpretation of copyright law that many copyright scholars agree with -- but which the RIAA and the MPAA would certainly prefer you not hear. I'm at the San Francisco MusicTech Summit
and on an early (and not particularly well attended) session in the morning, intellectual property lawyer Andrew Bridges
made a fascinating argument: that if you follow the actual text of existing US copyright law, uploading unauthorized content does not infringe the distribution rights of copyright
. This goes even beyond the whole "making available" question, by saying even the uploading doesn't violate the law directly.
The reasoning requires a very literal reading of the law. Section 106
of copyright law lists out the specific "exclusive rights" granted under copyright law to copyright holders, including things like reproduction rights, performance rights and distribution rights. The text of the distribution right is: "to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;" From this reading, one might conclude that uploading a file is a "copy." But if you go to Section 101
, which holds the definitions for the law, it states (quite clearly):
"Copies" are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term "copies" includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed.
Note the emphasis on material objects
. As such, you can read the law, as written, to conclude that passing around the song itself, which is not a material object, is not actually an infringement of the distribution right under the current law.
Now, before people get too excited about this, in a later panel this question was raised again, to the EFF's Fred von Lohmann. He agreed that this appeared to be a literal reading of copyright law -- and that just about every copyright scholar he's spoken to agrees -- but that every time he's argued it in court, the court has disagreed or ignored it. He says he'll continue to make the argument, but that it has not been effective. Also, as Bridges noted in making the original statement, just because the distribution right isn't infringed, doesn't mean there aren't other issues. For example, whoever downloaded
the file downloaded it to a material object (the hard drive) probably violates the first exclusive right, the "reproduction" right. And, thus, an argument could be made that the person who uploaded the file contributed to the violation of the reproduction right. However, based on this argument, it does seem clear that uploading a file is not, technically, a violation of the distribution right under copyright law -- not that the courts recognize that. Of course, if the courts ever did recognize this fact, you could bet that within a matter of days, a Congressional Representative would introduce an amendment to copyright law to change the definition of "copy" to include content not tied to a material good.