Law and morality

While I don’t usually bother too much with television, I’ve used an open source software called “TV Browser” for a while. It’s a nice little piece of software, giving you a electronic program guide right on your desktop.

This week, we were checking out the Italian TV (which can be quite odd, but that’s another story). The point is that the TV Browser doesn’t contain any Italian channels. To my astonishment I also discovered that, by design, the software doesn’t support importing the quite common XMLTV format.

The reason (according to the developers) is that some of the “grabber” scripts included in XMLTV may not be legal to use in some jurisdictions. Thus the origin of some xmltv data files might be questionable. Thus the TV Browser people don’t provide any generic support for the XMLTV data format. Because, possibly, maybe, could it be used by some people to view “illegal” data.

It pisses me off to no end, and not only for selfish reasons.

Of course the first thing pissing me off is the fact that I can’t easily use the software to view the Italian program guide. This is completely selfish, of course; because on the Mac there’s no viewer half as good.

The next thing pissing me off is that the whole discussion is based on some flawed half-knowledge of the german law concerning databases. I find it somewhat frustrating to watch this kind of discussion, but it’s generally useless to get involved.

In the end, I’d completely understand if they’d say “we know it sucks, but we’re just hobbyists and can’t afford any legal trouble“. Which would probably be right.

But from what I see it’s a stance of “it is wrong to use this data, and you shouldn’t do it” and suggest that other people adopt the same approach. Without any need, this project takes and advocates the position of external rights holders.

I think that in the big picture this is a dangerous stance to take; itgoes beyond a petty TV programme dispute.

In Germany (and in other place too, I guess) intellectual rights holders (as in: music and entertainment industry) are trying to “re-educate” people about how these rights work. Obviously, they have a vested interested there and so their “information” is not always quite accurate – to say the least.
On the other hand, there’s also a growing tendency to just “play along”, in order to avoid trouble.

If this persists, it means that the rights holders will be able to make their own rules. People will give up rights such as fair use, due to fear and misinformation. This is not in the interest of the public, but a public discussion about those rights will not happen if everyone just goes along.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-copyright. I’m working in that industry, too, and I’m interested in fair compensation. But the rules for a whole new kind of business is made now. If the rights holders have all their way, everyone else gets screwed over.

This is why I’m quite astonished to see people like Jeff Atwood from Coding Horror getting all worked up about DRM and arbitrary control – and still never asking the question if this should be allowed to happen. To ask the question if a manufacturer should be allowed control a device that you bought with your own money.

It doesn’t seem such a strange thought to me.

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6 thoughts on “Law and morality

  1. Sorry to say this, but we don’t have “some flawed half-knowledge of the german law concerning databases.”.

    You can look for yourself here: “§ 53 UrhG – Vervielfältigungen zum privaten und sonstigen eigenen Gebrauch” ( http://bundesrecht24.de/lexsoft.exe?xid=140508,64 ). You will see that it you are not allowed to download Data from a Database-Software. If you would read heise and other german it sites, you would have seen some court rules about this in the past.

    We have legal knowledge in this area. And we have lawyers who understand copyright laws very well.

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  2. Interesting to see that you as Italian think to have more knowledge of German law than we, the main TV-Browser developers, who are in fact all Germans. And being German also means _we_ as developers are affected by German law and we have to deal with the consequences. If _you_ have other legal circumstances in your country, please feel free to do whatever you like but don’t try to have us breaking German laws. From the German point of view the “may be illegal” in your post is certainly “are in fact illegal”.

    It’s quite common that people from outside the TV-Browser project are unhappy, or as you say “pissed” by our decision to not support each and every source of XMLTV files and start ranting. And from other experience I can tell that while arguing about morality, free information access or any other topic, those people really only care about _their_ free information access and _their_ freedom.

    So instead of ranting put your money where your mouth is, find a legal source of Italian XMLTV data, get an agreement from the data owner to use the XMLTV data in the TV-Browser project and we will be happy to use that data.

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  3. It’s interesting to see how people jump to conclusions. Let’s just say that I’m not completely unknowledge in German copyright law (in fact, I know a lot more about that than about the Italian law – I’ll explain that position below). I’m certainly not suggesting that you break German law, quite to the contrary. I know law is slippery ground and that you, as project, are in no position to enter into a legal case. So yes, I agree with your decision to be careful – even if I still fail to see how supporting a file format would possibly affect you.

    In any case, this wasn’t the main point of my rant. I was attacking the view that “legal” means the same as “having explicit permission”. This is simply not true, neither under German law nor in most other jurisdictions. However, it appears that many rights holders like to have us living in a world where you have to ask permission to do anything – which leads to arbitrary restrictions. I think that this is not in everybody’s best interest that this happens.

    Again, I support the copyright law, but I also support the boundaries that exist to prevent it’s abuse. Of course, that is my personal opinion and you are free to disagree with it.

    Even if I picked TV browser as an example, I wanted to address a more general problem. And even if we disagree on this point, I’d like to say I really appreciate your software a lot and the work you put into it. I’ll continue to use it for the channels that you offer. Please excuse me if I won’t start procuring an Italian data source at the moment – after all the television guide is not such a high priority for me at the moment… I’ll just live with the online offerings for the time being.

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  4. German copyright law, my opinion, on special request – keep in mind that while this is a fun legal dispute, it’s not sound advice.

    To refresh my knowledge a bit I hit Google. I was quickly able to locate this paper. It makes a convincing point that television programmes are not “works” (“Datenbankwerk”), as defined in §4 (2) UrhG – which are in fact exempt from the “fair use” rule in §53 UrhG. I would take the position that a tv program is merely a “Datenbank”, as defined in §87a UrhG. For those, there is a “fair use” rule, as defined in §87c UrhG. However, “editorial” information (like movie reviews, photos, etc) may or may not change this status; this will rather depend on the database in question. Republishing of the data will not be legal in any case.

    Even we assume a copyright violation takes place, the only violation will be the download of the data. It could be possible to construct a case where a software that was created for the illegal download may also be in trouble. However, it shouldn’t be possible to construct a case against a software that is only able to read a certain data format – and which doesn’t create any code to start an illegal download. Such an interpretation of the law would obviously lead to senseless results; it would practically outlaw any software that reads open formats – from MP3 players to word processors.

    Last note: While I enjoy these discussions, it’s of little practical value in this case. Law isn’t a hard science, rather a valuation of conflicting opinions, and who is “right” will only be decided in court. To be quite clear: “Don’t try this at home”. If you have a “hot” problem concerning copyright law, don’t listen to people on the internet. Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to heise. Don’t even listen to your family lawyer. Get a lawyer that is an expert in the field, or you’ll be in serious trouble.

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  5. Okay, we should try a more practical aproach : are you willing to help us with adding the italian channels?

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