Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Anarchist Cookbook 2.0...

Back when I was a kid, every boy in school wanted to get a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook - an outdated manuscript from the early 1970s that provided instructions on blowing things up, using weapons, scamming free calls from pay phones, and basically every other thing that a teenage boy is interested in. We always wondered how such a book could be sold legally. The answer was that it was protected under free speech.

The reason for this trip down memory lane is that today Wired posted detailed instructions for how to copy DVDs. This is an irresistible analogy. We all know that piracy is illegal, yet Wired (and a million other websites) are free to tell the world exactly how to do it.

The never-spoken secret that every website author understands is that whenever you talk about piracy, make sure to say that your instructions are only for making backups of things you already bought. That covers your rear-end in case of any lawsuit. But it's a total joke. Call it what it is: instructions for how to commit piracy and make copies of a CD or DVD for free.

The same holds true for downloading music and movies. Millions of websites provide instructions on how to download songs from peer-to-peer networks, and they cover themselves by arguing that such networks aren't only used for piracy; there are also many legal, non-copyrighted works out there that justify all of the published "How-to" tutorials. They try to frame the issue not in terms of "piracy", but in terms of "file sharing". But anyone who's been on the internet for more than five minutes knows that this is a total joke as well.

But so what? If we took a reality check and created policies that actually conformed to people's existing behaviors, we'd let authors come right out and openly admit that their instructions are meant to help people copy DVDs that they rent from Blockbuster and to download a bunch of Beatles albums without paying for them. The perpetual 13-year-old inside of me is forced to wonder how it's OK for a book to be published that tells you how to make Molotov Cocktails to blow up buildings, but how it's not OK to make a free copy of "The Lion King" for my niece.


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