Here are two words that have no business hanging out together: "used MP3s." If you know anything about how computers work, that concept is intellectually offensive. Same goes for "ebook lending", "digital rental" and a host of other terms that have emerged from the content industries' desperate scramble to do the impossible: adapt without changing.
These concepts are all completely imaginary, and yet we treat them as if they are real, and have serious discussions about every last detail of how they function — like a debate about the best mutant superpower, but with multimillion dollar lawsuits. Copyright necessitates that we all pretend we don't know any better. It makes us act stupid.
Take "used MP3s" for example. The idea is instantly nonsensical, and proposing it seems on par with asking how all those people fit inside the television. A "used MP3" is indistinguishable from a "new" one, and on the internet there's no such thing as an individual, discrete copy of an MP3 that gets "moved" from one person to another anyway. Speaking even more broadly, a "file" is not a "thing" at all — it's a concept that we use to help organize and visualize the even more abstract concept of "information" in many different places and states, whether magnetically inscribed on a hard disk platter or being transmitted via radio waves (not to mention the internal operation of a computer, where pieces of the information are shunted around between multiple different components and caches).
A "file" is an analogy, and like all analogies, it's incomplete. It breaks down when taken too far, and then it must be discarded, because analogies only exist for our convenience. "Moving" a file is also an analogy — in reality, we are copying it and then deleting the original. Even deleting a file is usually an analogy — the data is still recoverable, the computer has just been instructed to pretend it's not there anymore.
The purpose of these analogies is not to impose limitations on reality. We don't give up the ability to copy a file because we simulated the ability to move it. We don't have to pretend information degrades like physical objects just because we chose to conceptualize it that way. If we want to describe something as "the size of 10 football fields", we don't demand there be gridiron lines painted on it. There's a reason that stubbornly sticking with analogies is referred to as torture, and every discussion about "used files" or the difference between moving and copying is another turn of the screw.
Because of copyright, we are constantly asked to pretend that these analogies are binding. When we "lend" a Kindle ebook, we must pretend that we gave a thing away and don't have it for a while, when in fact our device is just refusing to let us access it. When a library wants to lend out ebooks, they must pretend they have a "limited number of copies available." When we buy software with an activation code, we must pretend that we "only bought one" and thus can only have it in one place at a time. When we rent a digital movie, we must pretend that we "have to give it back". We have to pretend we're stupid and that our devices have limitations which don't actually exist.
But here's the real kicker: the moment there might be any benefit to the consumer, the content companies toss the analogy out the window, and suddenly want to talk about reality. Thus you get things like ReDigi, the would-be used MP3 market that recently lost in court. ReDigi attempted to make MP3s simulate discrete items by enforcing the analogy of "moving a file" using a monitoring system, such that when you sold an MP3 to someone, it would make sure you deleted your own copy. Though we always suspected it was doomed, it was at least rather fascinating from a legal and policy perspective, potentially creating a clash between copyright and first sale rights. After all, if we are expected to treat digital files like physical property, we should at least be getting the rights that come with that.
But this time the record labels wanted to focus on the fact that there's no such thing as moving a file, and pointed out that ReDigi involved making copies whether or not it also involved deleting other copies — and the judge agreed. This is actually correct, technically and realistically — just don't tell them that next time, when it doesn't benefit them and they're back to calling infringement theft. As if to underline their masterful doublethink when it comes to the nature of property, the labels are all about having their cake and eating it too.
ReDigi is hardly the only example. We've written before about the insane situation with TV and movie streaming, where companies do things like set up a warehouse full of separate DVD players that stream from individual discs, or install a separate TV antenna on the same rooftop for every customer who wants an online stream. They are forced to willfully ignore technological capabilities, engineering principles and simple common sense just to conform to all these broken analogies — and they still face massive opposition from content owners and broadcasters every step of the way.
The real issue, when you get down to it, is that copyright itself is imaginary. A "song" or a "novel" is just as analogical as a "file". Originally, copyright law was very concerned with separating the expression of an idea from the idea itself, and in theory that's still the case, but in practice the line has proven almost impossible to draw. So first we conceptualize an abstract thing like "content" as discrete pieces, then we conceptualize all the abstract rights associated with those pieces, and then we conceptualize the discrete units of distribution and ownership within those rights.
These are all imaginary concepts, built on top of other imaginary concepts, built on top of still more imaginary concepts. It's turtles all the way down.
This does not necessarily mean that there's no place for copyright in the world. But in order for it to function, we have to remember that it's an analogy — it's something chosen and used to achieve a purpose, not something that binds and shapes reality, or that we must conform to at the expense of our better judgement. Originally, copyright was just that: a choice by society to employ the analogies of ownership and property in limited, specially-tailored ways in order to achieve a desired result — a flourishing intellectual and artistic economy. Today, copyright is worlds away from what it was then, and it does more to hinder that goal than help it... but many people seem to have forgotten that it's a just a tool, and we can always put it down.
In all the discussion about the various reasons people give for violating copyright, I think there's one that goes unmentioned: a lot of people just refuse to pretend to be stupid.