As the RIAA and MPAA continue their sad and misguided quests to control the distribution and use of all audio and video media, I’ve been thinking about the boundaries of copyright law and how, precisely, they fit into the business model these groups are attempting to force on consumers.

I came up with a little gedankenexperiment to illustrate my thought process, and I’m curious where the lines are drawn. Here goes.

Laralee and I have heard good things about the TV series Alias, so we decided to watch a few episodes. I went to Blockbuster and rented the first episodes of season one. This is a set of two DVDs with a total of eight 45-minute episodes. It’s important to note that Blockbuster requests that the DVDs be returned in one week.

Okay, so I take home the DVDs and we pop them into the DVD player to watch the pilot episode. I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re breaking any copyright laws.

But now, as part of our thought experiment, let’s pretend my DVD player broke after we watched the pilot. We’ve still got seven episodes to watch, and a few days before we have to return them to Blockbuster. What to do? No problem– I’ve got a computer with a DVD drive. We head over to the computer and insert the DVD, then sit back to watch episode 2. Still no copyright infringement, right?

Dang, the DVD drive is pretty sluggish and the computer is having trouble playing the show at full speed. We’re getting lots of choppy scenes and pauses, and it’s really annoying. The show isn’t watchable, so I tell Laralee it’s no problem– I’ll just copy it to the computer’s hard drive, which is much faster than the DVD drive.

It takes a while, but eventually we have the files on the hard drive. We crank up the DVD software and tell it to load the hard drive “disc image” instead of a physical disc. It’s much faster than before, and we enjoy episode 3.

But we’re pretty busy in the evenings, and we don’t get a chance to watch for a few nights. Blockbuster wants the DVDs back or they’ll charge us. What to do? Well, how about if I copy the second DVD to my hard drive as well? Then I can return them to Blockbuster, and we’ll just watch the next episodes at our leisure. So I do that, return the DVDs, and we watch episode 4 that night.

Keep in mind that recording something to watch later is called “time shifting” in the industry, and that’s all I’ve done here– I’ve taken a legal copy of a DVD I rented and time-shifted the content a couple of days, so we can watch it when we find the time to do so. The federal courts have upheld the right to time-shift video content as “fair use” under copyright law, so it seems I still haven’t broken any laws.

Fortunately, I manage to fix my DVD player. Obviously I’d rather watch the bigscreen from the couch than the teensy computer monitor in an office chair. But how? Wait– I’ve got a couple of DVD-R discs in my office (I use them for periodic data backups). I grab them and burn the hard drive image to a DVD. Now Laralee and I can watch episode 5 on the bigscreen.

Are we there yet? Have we broken the law?

Now my friend wants to come over and watch the show with us. He’s heard it’s a good series, so we invite him to the house and we all watch episode 6. Does this count as a “public performance”, which is the term we see in all those FBI warnings at the start of all DVDs? We’re still in the privacy of our home, and we didn’t charge admission or anything, so we’re probably okay.

My friend really likes the show, and wants to see episode 7, but sadly he can’t come over tomorrow, so I lend him the DVD. He takes it home and watches it on his own television, then returns it to us a few days later. Is this legal?

Finally, my friend says he wants to see episode 8 as well, but he’s moving out of the state. Because I’d hate for him to miss the pivotal episode, I burn a second DVD-R and mail it to him so he can watch it in his new house.

You can see how there’s a natural progression here; my question is where it crosses the line into criminal activity. The MPAA would have us believe that “pirating” movies hurts the artists– and far be it from me to hurt Jennifer Garner, the star of Alias— but what actions here were hurtful to her or to the industry in general?

It’s hard to know what’s legal and what’s not with the changing landscape of digital technology, and my gedankenexperiment really isn’t that far removed from reality. What does the MPAA want? Is it realistic for them to expect me to buy a new DVD player and television (with appropriate digital rights management software on both) so I can watch season 2 of Alias? Current proposed legislation would have us do exactly that. Is it unreasonable for me to watch it on a computer, or time-shift it to a more convenient day?

These are tough questions, but I think the approach of the MPAA and RIAA is completely out of touch with reality, and will only serve to alienate the very people who are purchasing their products. It’s a short-sighted solution to a dead business model, and sooner or later it will catch them.