On Camera Phones and Digital Piracy

Posted by Justin Case — 16 May 2011

An interesting piece in the NY Times that was actually posted in January asks the question "Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?"

Nick Bilton raised an interesting question that will undoubtedly raise issues that may call for future criminal and civil litigation as well as likely legislation, as is frequently the case when new technologies bend the norms of every day life - does anyone remember VHS and the First Sale Doctrine?

When you're using your smartphone as a de facto copier, are you violating a law? Harming the owner of the copyright? Or are you simply leveraging the convenience of a new application on that device in your pocket to help you take a reminder home with you?

Mr. Bilton and his wife apparently were taking snaps of design ideas for a new home they were planning to buy. After spending hours browsing books at Barnes & Noble, they took their illicit images home to browse their selections.

Importantly, they didn't buy the books. They essentially copied the content of the books and took them for use with their contractor, to reference colors, designs and styles. After all, purchasing all of those books might be the kind of contribution to the P&L that would keep Barnes & Noble from going the way of the recently bankrupt and liquidated Borders.

Although one could argue that morally and ethically, the digital imaging was wrong... was it illegal? Generally, while the early '70's saw a wave of lawsuits from publishers against those wielding copiers, unless you've gone beyond 'fair use', you've probably not broken the law.

Fair Use is but another somewhat aged piece of legislation that is going to be put to the test in the digital age. With increased resolution and better imaging applications/software, the ability to take a photo of a work that is protected by copyright and distribute, alter or otherwise exploit that work will increase. Like music piracy, which only dramatically stretched the bounds of copyright law with the emergence of digital storage and distribution, the quality and ubiquity of the cameras we carry with us everywhere enable uses that were never contemplated by our laws.

As our slow moving Congress tackles issues like the economy and global democracy, they have scarce time to contemplate these issues. But as the accelerating pace of change is pressed ever faster by emerging technologies, will laws catch up? Or will bookstores and the printed page go the way of the LP and cassette?

The first step is the demise of the big retailers. This is already well underway. What's next? Do publishers take a page from the RIAA playbook and start suing individual users?

Is this even piracy, or is this just the 'new world order'?

What do you think?

To read Nick Bilton's entire article, check it out at the NY Times here.

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