Reading13: Intellectual Property
I have to admit that coming into these readings, copyright law was something I badly lacked knowledge of. I knew copyrights were weaker than patents and lasted longer, but I wasn’t sure exactly what they entailed. Regardless, the idea of copyrights present an interesting juxtaposition for me as someone who supports innovation and progress. I recognize the importance of protecting intellectual property as an incentive to innovate but also realize that collaboration is important and that much progress is made from people building off others’ work, so a delicate balance must be struck between strict and loose IP protections.
One of the most interesting debates related to copyright surrounds the practice of reverse engineering, or the reproduction of a product made from an examination of the product’s inner workings. I was surprised to learn through these readings that “the fair use doctrine allows users to make unauthorized copies in certain circumstances.” In other words, people can reverse engineer products without permission assuming they follow certain guidelines. In general, legal precedence allows for reverse engineering as long as there are no license agreements preventing it and it is done strictly from studying and fiddling with the original product in an effort to produce a copy independently. Copying actual restricted instructions would not be allowed under fair use (see Atari Games Corp. vs. Nintendo of America, Inc.).
Ethically, I think reverse engineering is permissible as long as the intended purpose is not to explicitly rip off the original seller. In other words, if you are reverse engineering to improve your individual experience or add a positive contribution (something new), I believe you are acting ethically. This has become a bigger issue lately with some companies like John Deere using the DMCA to argue that “consumers do not own the software underpinning the products they buy,” essentially meaning that “farmers receive an implied lease for the life of [a John Deere] to operate the vehicle.” I think this is quite a stretch. The DMCA was constructed to prevent theft of IP, not to prevent people from modifying their property to use as they see fit, and I cannot see why fiddling with the stereo of a John Deere to allow for more audio options represents a theft of IP. Luckily, earlier this year, the US Copyright office clarified that such use is permissible (and it is even permissible to hire someone to alter such internal hardware/software for you).
However, I do not believe that the DMCA is a totally misguided law. As mentioned, it was designed to protect intellectual property and it is generally effective at doing so. For instance, it permits companies to use DRM (digital rights management), or access control technologies that restrict the use of proprietary hardware and copyrighted works, to protect IP. I think this is a perfectly ethical way to prevent piracy and the illegal copying of IP, and circumventing DRM to copy such works for distribution is certainly not moral. Though it would probably be illegal, I have no problem with people ripping a CD to get audio files they already own in a format they can personally use better, but impermissibly distributing such ripped audio is just blatant theft.