May 032010
Authors: Sam Blake, Minnesota Daily U of Minnesota

(U-WIRE) – Remember kindergarten? I sure don’t. But I have a good grasp of what the stereotypical kindergarten experience is supposed to be. And I’m pretty confident that in kindergarten, you’re usually taught that sharing is a good thing.

The Internet is great for sharing, as most people have probably noticed. More often than not, people share quite a bit more than others care to see.

Of course, in kindergarten we’re also taught that it’s wrong to take other people’s things. Much as we may want to play with that particular set of blocks (Do you play with blocks in kindergarten? Like I said, I don’t remember) we learn that it is wrong to take it if it belongs to someone else.

Incidentally, the Internet is also great for taking things that belong to other people. Plagiarism and piracy are more common than ever, thanks to digital media being so easily duplicated and distributed. Of course, “taking” digital media is not as straightforward as taking someone’s toys, and it raises issues of ethicality and legality.

And if any website has served most to confound both the legal and ethical aspects of copyright, it’s YouTube.
Here’s a simple case. If a copyright holder uploads its own video for whatever reason, it is free (and perfectly legal) for users to watch on YouTube whenever they want and as many times as they want, at least until the copyright holder removes it.

But since YouTube exists to let you watch videos at the time and with the frequency of your choosing, is it ethical for you to download the video from YouTube and then watch it at your leisure?

The easy answer is no. Ethical behavior requires obeying the terms of the contract you agreed to by using YouTube, specifically their Terms of Service. And a thorough reading of YouTube’s TOS indicates that “You may access User Submissions … solely as intended through the provided functionality of the YouTube Website. You shall not copy or download any User Submission.”

But here’s a fun fact: When you watch a video on YouTube in the “intended” fashion, you are downloading a copy of it. With about four seconds of work, you can find the copy where it resides on your computer and move it to wherever is most convenient for you.

And since the “intended” functionality is to get a copy of the video onto your computer that you can watch, it doesn’t take a very sophisticated argument to claim that the action is perfectly ethical.

I’m not advocating that people intentionally break YouTube’s Terms of Service just because they’re a bit inconsistent. The spirit of the contract in this case is fairly obvious. But when using the service properly requires you to violate the TOS, there is clearly a problem.

The problem is the combination of our absurdly tortuous copyright law and the popular disregard for it that YouTube and its uploaders embody.

As the advance of technology continues to outpace refinement of the law, we need to ensure that our laws are simple enough to be properly obeyed, but more importantly we need to ensure that we’re behaving in a way that we know is ethical.

If we can’t handle these most basic ethical judgments, perhaps we all need to go back to kindergarten.

 Posted by at 4:16 pm

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