So This Pirate Walks Into Barnes & Noble…

That’s not the setup line for a joke. It’s the summary of an article in the New York Times by a reporter suffering pangs of guilt after visiting a bookstore.  He and his wife pulled a book off the shelf, sat down and proceeded to photograph a dozen pages with their smartphones. Then it occurred to them: “Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

The question is simple but the answer is anything but. By the mere act of clicking their iPhone a dozen times, Nick Bolton and his wife steered a treacherous course between fair use and piracy, between the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (See Digital Millennium Copyright Act Part 1 and Part 2) To make matters more perplexing, the definitions constantly shift with changing technology and social conventions.

“As the technology in cellphones advances,” Bolton writes, “higher-resolution cameras, image-enhancing software and high-clarity screens make it delightfully easy to capture a photograph and view it later. There may not be Web sites devoted to purloined pictures — there are such sites for music or videos — but many people have a cavalier attitude toward using cameras to obtain copyrighted material.”

Cavalier indeed.  Our archives are packed with the exploits of “cavaliers”.

Up to now the Times has tiptoed around the issue of piracy in the book business, concentrating its attention on the higher profile music and movie industries. But the time is approaching when the subject will take center stage, for it is by far the greatest threat to the future of authorship and the success of the e-book industry. “It could be years before the publishing industry feels real economic pressure caused by people who take pictures of books or magazines with their mobile phones,” says Julie A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at the Stanford Law School. “In fact, it’s quite possible that digital technology will make this particular problem moot…By the time this becomes an issue, we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

Details in Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate? by Nick Bilton. Many of these issues are expertly analyzed in The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason, a fascinating book filled with eye-opening insights into life in the digital lane.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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