Fair Use is a limitation on Copyright that allows you to legally make copies under certain conditions. The important thing here is that the courts recognize that someone who creates (or currently owns the rights to) content does not hold the absolute god-like power over that content in all circumstances, but the companies act as if they did.
For the sake of these very infrequent piracy operations and very small number of abusers, companies think they can put restrictions on their media that inconveniences everyone. There are many instances where copying copyrighted material is permissable under law. This is called Fair Use.
A Quick Fair-Use Summary (paraphrased from the EFF)
Courts have previously found that a use was fair where the use of the copyrighted work was socially beneficial. In particular, U.S. courts have recognized the following fair uses: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research and parodies.
In addition, in 1984 the Supreme Court held that time-shifting (for example, private, non-commercial home taping of television programs with a VCR to permit later viewing) is fair use. (Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417 (1984, S.C.)
Although the legal basis is not completely settled, many lawyers believe that the following (and many other uses) are also fair uses:
- Space-shifting or format-shifting – that is, taking content you own in one format and putting it into another format, for personal, non-commercial use. For instance, "ripping" an audio CD (that is, making an MP3-format version of an audio CD that you already own) is considered fair use by many lawyers, based on the 1984 Betamax decision and the 1999 Rio MP3 player decision (RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia, 180 F. 3d 1072, 1079, 9th Circ. 1999.)
- Making a personal back-up copy of content you own – for instance, burning a copy of an audio CD you own.
For example, let's say you buy a collectible Disney movie, but don't want to let your kids watch it because they'll destroy it. So you make a back-up copy and let them watch that instead. Old laws are in conflict with new laws which are constantly being challenged, but who could argue that doing so was ethically wrong? It's your movie, you should be able to do what you want with it.
Manipulation and Lies
Companies try to gain public sympathy (and thus, support for DRM), by using statistics and villifying downloaders. But their claims are to truth what a cheese sandwich is to copper.
Copyright owners spout all kinds of numbers (usually in the billions) of the dollars they've lost due to piracy. Well here's the fundamental flaw with their "logic". An instance of piracy is not the same as a lost sale. In other words, there are many people who, if they didn't have access to Internet downloads of copyrighted material, still wouldn't buy it legitimately.
Take, for example, your standard jobless teenager. They don't have a lot of disposable cash so they couldn't afford to buy the 9000 music tracks they downloaded, but they will download it because it's available (more on this in the next sections).
Even putting that aside, the copyright holders can get very creative with numbers.
The RIAA and MPAA are organizations that represent copyright holders for music and movies. Both have used their vast resources to bully and intimidate normal people into giving them money (didn't that used to be called extortion?).
The RIAA in particular has used every dirty trick in the book. Besides suing innocent children, dead people, and the innocent children of dead people, they use a wide variety of questionable legal tactics that some would say are illegal.
And in case you thought I was being unfair to the RIAA, MPAA is no better. There. Now everything's in balance again.
Sure, we all understand the companies need to go after the blatant pirates, but leave us out of it! Why should we have messages on our screen saying we can't watch this movie because it's the wrong "region". Why can't I play a Playstation game in any language I want? Why can't I play the game I bought on my main computer and put it on my laptop too when for when I'm travelling?
There are hundreds of legitimate, ethical reasons to copy copyrighted material that may not be covered under fair use or might even be technically illegal, but aren't wrong in the slightest (and we all know it). Here are some examples, feel free to share yours in the comments:
- You buy a CD and copy your favorite song to all your computers, your MP3 players, and a CD for your car.
- You never thought to make a copy of that rare old album or classic computer game and now it's destroyed/lost/gone/stolen (whatever). You find a copy online and download it as a backup copy after the fact.
- You buy a copy of an Operating System or Office software for your computer and put it on any number of your other personal machines at home.