Sunday, December 9, 2012

The right to link

Is it a crime to link to something?

Some would say the answer is yes.

"Some", in this case, being the judicial system, which apparently is about to try a certain Barrett Brown for the crime of linking to certain information. If you want details on what, you can crime your way over it from here.

"Some" is also, believe it or not, the Swedish copyright law. It is in fact a crime to link to things, under certain conditions. Not because of malign intent, mind you, but because of something that is about to become very common in the years to come: changed circumstances.

You see, the relevant laws regarding this were written back in the early 1900s. As you may well know, things were different back then. The laws say that 1) copyright is automatically given to someone once they have created something, that 2) they have the right to choose when and how they make their creation public and that 3) to make something public without the creator's permission is not allowed.

Under the conditions of early 20th century, this was as good a copyright law as one could make. No fuss with paperwork, no fuss with different types of works, and in general less fuss than one would expect from copyright regulation. If you created something, you got the copyright to that thing, and that was that. Simple, plain and easy to understand.

Back in those days, the means of production were not quite what we know today. Whatever any one person could do was of limited scope, and couldn't in any relevant way threaten those who mass produced copyrighted works. If you typed out a whole book on your typewriter, you had to put in a lot of effort just to produce that one copy. If you copied a painting, you essentially had to paint it by hand, which again took a long time for that one copy. And so on and so forth - things took quite a while to do back then, and if one person did it it didn't really have an impact on the market as such.

Or, put another way: it's hard to set up a factory cranking out pirate goods by accident. You really needed to know what you were doing and do it on a large scale in order to be relevant for copyright law back then.

These laws are, by and large, still in force. And they produce strange results when they are applied to the current state of things. Linking to something, for instance, has been compared to making something available to the public, which (as we saw in 3 above) is a crime. There actually was a big case a while back where someone was charged for linking to an unencrypted access point for a digital television stream. The stream itself was unencrypted and open for anyone who knew it, and the one thing this guy did was to link to it - therefore making it (more) available to the public.

An extension of this line of reasoning is that it may, in fact, be illegal to tell someone the names of things. If you know the name of something, you can search for it in a search box, and the person who told you the name made the search results available to you. Absurd, yes, but laws don't have to make sense - they just have to cohere.

Again - this state of things is not due to malign intent. It's just the result of good lawmaking not quite remaining good in a society where people have weapons of mass productions in their homes.

You and I take our right to link for a given. But there are forces in the world out there trying to make it something less than given. Good legislation turned bad is one thing, and the interests behind the case of poor Barrett is another.

Let's keep this right a given. Let's keep fighting those things that tries to take this right away from us. With legislative reform where possible (the Swedish Pirate Party is hard at work on that), and through ever more awesome feats of cryptography where it isn't (Telecomix and others are hard at work on that).

Don't let the dead hand of history take away the most potent weapon you have: the right to talk to your fellow human beings.  If we lose that, we lose everything.

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