One of the problems with enforcing copyright in the digital environment is that there is a seemingly infinite amount of content online, free for the taking (if you don’t count broadband internet fees). As a result, it has often been difficult for content owners to convince everyone that downloading content that is easily available–but copyrighted–is illegal. This issue is nothing new.

So what is the cause of this problem, exactly? Is it too difficult to understand what copyright infringement is? Or do people just not care? I’ve always found the argument that Jessica Litman makes in her book, Digital Copyright (2001) (pp. 111-114), to be very convincing. Litman argues that many individuals ignore copyright laws simply because they don’t seem logical to them:

The current copyright statute has proved to be remarkably education-resistant. One part of the problem is that many people persist in believing that laws make sense. If someone claims that a law provides such and such, but such and such seems to make no sense, then perhaps that isn’t really the law, or wasn’t intended to be the way the law worked, or was the law at one time but not today, or is one of those laws…that is okay to ignore.

Litman notes that if enforcement is seen to be incomplete and uneven, people become less willing to apply for permission for what they currently receive without any such permission—or to pay for what they currently receive free.

I have always found this argument appealing, although I’ve never successfully figured out how copyright laws could be adjusted to have them “make sense” to more people. Perhaps the problem is that the idea of intellectual property (as opposed to more “tangible” forms of property) still hasn’t really been absorbed by the population at large. Unfortunately, if copyright as a solution is discarded by rights holders as impracticable or unenforceable, we may run the risk of tighter technological and contract law controls being put on content (possibly regardless of whether particular content is protected by copyright or not).

In this context, I find YouTube’s “copyright school” interesting. It’s a four-minute cartoon setting out copyright basics, and noting when you can get in trouble (with YouTube and/or the law). There are also four questions to answer at the end to make sure you understood at least some of it. Importantly, passing the quiz may enable certain users to erase a history of copyright wrongdoing from their YouTube record, whereas previously it was a strict “three strikes and you’re out” (of a YouTube account) policy.

I’d be interested to hear what people think about this. Do you think it will make a difference? Do you have any thoughts on why YouTube is doing this? (One view is that it’s to protect users who in general have not been infringers, but might inadvertently exceed the thee strikes and lose their accounts.)