What Every Consumer Should Know About Intellectual Property

You’ve read the news stories about grandmothers being arrested for illegal downloads of songs (those Glenn Miller songs are evil!), or twelve year olds charged with copyright violations for downloading the latest Harry Potter movie.


Copyright and intellectual property laws in the United States are an interesting mix that can be confusing for the average consumer—and when you add in a DVR, the question of fair use, personal use, commercial use, educational use, and so forth can be a complex maze.

The bottom line for intellectual property issues is simple: the creator of the work wants their money. The middle manager—often a large entertainment studio—wants its share of the money as well. The law gives both consumers and creators (and their middlemen) a set of rules that help delineate when “Moonlight Serenade” can be downloaded, how you can use that DVR’d copy of “The X-Files” pilot episode, and when professors can show PBS shows in class for free—and legally.

Understanding those rules can be a labyrinthine experience that is about as fun as teaching your grandmother how to program her new DVR.

What is “Intellectual Property?”

“Intellectual property” is a broad term for ideas or artistic creations for which the creator owns the license. In essence, whenever a product of the mind or intellect is created, the creator reserves the right to benefit from his or her creation. The law steps in to protect this right.

Copyright exists to protect people who create the works under copyright, to make certain that the creator receives appropriate financial remuneration for their work. Copyright holders can require a fee for the use of their work, or refuse to permit others to use their work; no law or court can compel them to release the product under duress.

In the United States, a copyrighted work can be owned by the creator for 75 years; after that time period expires, the work of art, be it music, film, text, image, or software, becomes part of the “public domain.” Public domain works are owned by no one, there is no copyright to be infringed, and the creator cannot charge a fee for the use of the intellectual property.

The basic idea behind intellectual property laws, then, is that by protecting the creator’s ability to make money from the creation, such laws encourage innovation and help society on the whole to benefit. On the other hand, such simple acts as sharing a recorded movie with a friend, or showing a recorded documentary to a college class can violate intellectual property laws—which some argue stifles the free expression of ideas and art, and takes copyright and intellectual property expressions to an illogical extreme that robs society of the benefit from these works.



What rights do DVR owners have?

You have the right to remain silent…. You have the right to record any material available to your DVR. HOW you use the material is the key issue when it comes to intellectual property. Record a football game a watch it at home? No problem. Record a hockey game and charge 15 people when they come over to watch it on your Infocus Screenplay 5000 to help pay for those $300 lamps that blow out after 400 hours and make the company’s manual claim that they last 2000 hours a work of fiction?

Problem. You’re just violated intellectual property law by profiting from someone else’s copyrighted material without paying a use fee to the copyright holder, even if it was done in the spirit of gaining more time with your 1100 lumens and 1280 x 720 pixels.

DVRs are hackable, which makes the entertainment industry’s intellectual property lawyers nervous.

While hackability, in some social and cultural circles in the United States, is a desirable quality, under intellectual property rights it’s a big no-no. Imagine that you record the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. A hacker gets into your DVR and copies the episode, then sells it online or on DVD. Who is responsible for the hacker’s access to the episode—you? Your cable company? The maker of your DVR device?

So far, the law places the responsibility on everyone BUT you. And, a side note—TiVo is remarkably popular among Linux hackers for its ability to run Linux. Intellectual property lawyers, most notably those working for entertainment corporations with serious vested interests in protecting intellectual property rights, can be heard collectively exploding at the thought of Linux-based hackers optimizing DVRs and gaining access to and/or modifying copyrighted material.

So that latest episode with McDreamy and McSteamy can be recorded and watched by you. It cannot be aired by you if you gain financially for it (so no charging the neighbors to come over and watch), but if Matthew Broderick hooks up his 300 baud acoustic coupler and you hear the TiVo asking, “Would you like to play a game?”—know that right now, you’re safe under the law.

Confused about what you can, and can't, legally do with your digital data? Here at DVRplayground your rights are important to us.

Check out these great articles, and learn more about your rights as a consumer!