Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Real Issue Of Online Piracy and Illegal File-Sharing: Assholes

Debates about illegal file-sharing have been going on for quite some time now, and while there are many interesting perspectives on the issue, the one thing that continues to surprise me is that very few people seem to actually understand what the central matter being debated is. Time and again, arguments are made that miss the point, facts or statistics are presented that have no relevance, and ultimately discussions digress into personal opinions about artists, major labels, the industry, etc. I'd like to clear up much of this foolishness, so that moving forward we can all focus on the relevant issue at hand. Note that for the sake of simplicity, the following will focus on music piracy and artists, but obviously the points raised are equally applicable to movies, authors, etc.

Lets begin with the myth that piracy was born of a noble idea that everything should be free and accessible to everyone...this notion is not what drives piracy. On the contrary, piracy is primarily motivated by greed - it's a business, and apparently a very good one. Without getting into the specifics of how money is earned through advertising, subscription fees, encouraging additional piracy through revenue kickbacks, etc, the short of it all is that pirates are making money. There's nothing wrong with someone making money, but if they are making money by commandeering and exploiting my work, and not even sharing any of those earnings with me to boot, then it shouldn't be controversial to suggest their actions are less than admirable.

There also needs to be a distinction between those who facilitate piracy, and the general users that benefit from it. The latter is not the issue. There are individuals who illegally download music in virtue of simply having access to it, without any concrete conceptualization or clear understanding of the practice they are undertaking. There are also people with low incomes that sincerely cannot afford to purchase or acquire content in other manners, for whom file-sharing is a blessing. There are even those who utilize piracy as a means to preview a large breadth of content before subsequently legally purchasing the content they like. But all of those who benefit from piracy in these ways are irrelevant to the "piracy industry" itself, which only exists because assholes are making a living from it.

Just to clarify, for the purposes of this article, "asshole" refers to persons that distribute content that they do not own, for the express purpose of profiting from that distribution. If you buy a book and share or give that book to a friend, you are not an asshole. Same with a physical CD or digital download. To be clear, a violation of intellectual property rights is still occurring in such cases, however, it's an extremely weak violation (much like J-walking), and does not have a significant impact on anything. Sharing on a person-to-person level is more or less inconsequential to the livelihood of content owners. In contrast, it's the massive enterprise of sharing through file-sharing networks on a national and global scale that is at issue, and which does affect the livelihood of content owners.

Now, let's address 8 common arguments in favor of piracy that succeed in skirting the real issue:

1) "Piracy only effects millionaires and billionaires who are already filthy rich, and there is nothing morally objectionable about preventing these overly wealthy individuals and companies from continuing to profit from my hard-earned money." This is fascinating logic, but not very compelling. For one, I'm a little uncomfortable with the populace collectively deciding that Katy Perry has made enough money - at the end of the day, she made a product - if you want that product, buy it; if not, don't. If her content is so appealing that it turns her into a billionaire, good for Katy. Is this really so objectionable? Moreover, it's not just the content of established and successful artists that are being pirated - it's also up-and-coming artists and independent artists. Yes, the content of established artists is pirated the most from a quantitative standpoint, but this has no bearing on the fact that independent artists who don't have large streams of income are substantially affected by the pirating of their content.

2) "Artists are getting screwed by their labels anyway, so what does it matter if their music is pirated?" Well that's very nice that you have decided to stand up for artist exploitation at the hands of their respective labels by choosing to steal their content. I'd like to point out that this has no relevance to artists that are not affiliated with labels, nor does it have any bearing on the many major / indie label artists with very good deal structures in place. But even in cases where labels are screwing over their artists, if an artist chose to enter into a bad deal, that's their prerogative - why are you so concerned with their business decisions? And furthermore, do you realize that even if we suppose 100% of all major label artists have "bad deals", you're enabling of the piracy industry isn't combatting that - it's simply changing which group of assholes are making money (and at least in the former case, artists are making something from their work, even if scant).

3) "Piracy is the best thing that could ever happen to independent or up-and-coming artists….now their work is being exposed to way more people than it would otherwise have been." Maybe yes, maybe no. But shouldn't that decision rest with the artists and rights owners of the music? If they see the merit in your perspective, and choose to distribute their catalogue for free, so be it. However, if they disagree with your position, why should they be unable to manage their catalogue as they see fit? Moreover, plenty of artists' music is readily available through online streaming sites - my entire discography for example can be listened to in its entirety through my website and YouTube channel - so the issue is not about having free access to music, it's about having music illegally distributed in an exploitative capacity without artists' consent.

4) "Music and movies are grossly overpriced, and pirating such content amounts to an objection of those inflated prices." There are certainly cases where content is overpriced, and such cases are definitely irritating to all consumers. However, it is unfair to characterize the entire entertainment industry, or even a significant part of it, as being "grossly overpriced." $10 for a music album is not overpriced. Those who suggest otherwise either don't have an understanding of what goes into the making of this content, or simply don't appreciate what they're getting for their money. Either way, such ignorance is beyond my ability to remedy, but while such a deluded perspective can understandably lead to person-to-person file-sharing, it does not legitimize the global money-making business of the piracy industry. I hope we can agree on at least that much.

5) "Artists have an easy life - you can barely call what they do work. They are living the dream, and they shouldn't be entitled to such obscene income and a life of luxury. So who cares if their content is being pirated." I'll be sure to ask for your permission the next time I have to take a shit. But let me just point out to you that while there do exist individuals in every industry who have had some remarkable opportunities just fall into their lap, the majority of successful professionals, including artists and entertainers, have all worked extremely hard to get to where they are. It seems to me that the real source of your ire is the cultural / political / societal system that we are all born into…I sympathize with you…but don't take it out on artists, especially when it's art that stands the best chance of taking the edge off the absurdity of all that angers you, and the best chance of inspiring the change that your miserable soul yearns for.

6) "Piracy is not actually theft - it's an infringement of copyright, which is not the same thing." Yes, technically speaking, you are correct. But regardless of the legal nuance involved, I think we can all agree some form of theft is at work. Should the illegal file-sharing of music be treated equivalent to the stealing of a car? No. But that doesn't mean it's somehow acceptable to steal intellectual content. In the same way that we treat the physical theft of objects differently based on the value of the object in question - a DVD vs a Mercedes - so should we treat the theft of objects differently according to the nature of the object - physical vs digital vs intellectual property. But make no mistake…all occurrences of theft should be addressed in some manner.

7) "We're in a new modern age where unrestricted access to digital content is now a basic reality that the entertainment industry needs to accept and find a way to adapt to." Interesting…so taken to it's logical conclusion, I suppose the "theft" of all the digital money in your bank account is something you'll just have to get over and accept as a reality of modernity, right? After all, it's not physical money - just a bunch of zeros and ones on a computer screen, so perhaps we shouldn't even consider it "theft" in the first place. Right, I hear you - the theft of "digital" money is different from digital music, because digital money isn't copied…it's stolen, in the real and legal sense of that term. Uh huh - well when 50 thousand people "copy" Lady Gaga's record, who otherwise would have bought it, is that not an actual measurable and legitimate loss of income? Does that not qualify as theft in your expert opinion? We can debate how many individuals that illegally download music would otherwise buy it if left no other choice - but while it's impossible to know the answer, I think we can agree that some amount of individuals would legally purchase music if a free alternative did not exist…and when you consider the millions of people throughout the world downloading thousands of music and movie files, even if that number were as low as 10% it would amount to a significant loss of income to content owners.

8) "Copyright law is ridiculous in and of itself with terms lasting author's life + 70 years…there's no reason for ownership to last that long, and it's only purpose is to ensure labels keep profiting for years and years. It should last somewhere between 5 and 20 years max. So as far as I'm concerned, piracy is rectifying this obscenity." Ugh…where to begin. Start by reading points 1 and 2 above. Then explain to me why it is you feel I should be forced to relinquish ownership of something that I created with my own two hands. Then let me know what time you'll be home so I can stop by to take that Mercedes from you - I think you've owned it for long enough, don't you?

With all of that out of the way, what we are left with is that assholes are exploiting other people's work without their consent, and profiting from that exploitation.

Now, I cannot prevent you from being an asshole. Only you can do that. So if you choose to be an asshole, it is what it is. We can get into why one would make such a choice, and speculate as to the psychological and emotional underpinnings that lead to such a choice, and even look to other industries where assholes have succeeded in astounding the world with their assholiness (white collar criminals and those Wall Street fuckers come to mind)…in the end though, it doesn't matter. Just accept that there are assholes in the world.

So, given pirates' decisions to be assholes, what can I do? I can perhaps try to persuade them that their decision has consequences that effect other human beings, and hope that they're able to see beyond their own selfish perspective. But I'm not going to waste my time trying to converse with assholes, as it doesn't make for very enlightening conversation.

It seems to me the logical thing to do is to remove the ability of assholes to steal without impunity in the first place - not to remove their desire to do so - just the ability. Consider this: if one person comes into a bank and steals handfuls of cash, it is easy to stop that individual. But if hordes of assholes are storming banks across the country, stealing everyone's money, then it's not practical to stop them all, nor efficient to discuss their actions on an intellectual and philosophical level…but it is practical and efficient for banks to start securing their money within vaults, and in so doing, remove the ability of said assholes to steal it. It's not rocket science…we just need to apply the same principle to piracy.

Obviously, the literal concept of a bank vault is not applicable to illegal file-sharing. However, just like in the bank analogy, we can diagnose what allows pirates to do what they do, and then seek to undermine that. In the case of banks, allowing piles of cash to be publicly accessible leads to massive theft of that cash. In the case of piracy, the enterprise functions as a result of a simple distortion: the notion that file-sharing websites facilitate the transfer of digital content between other people, without directly participating in the content being transferred, and that as such, they have no control over if their users choose to upload and share content illegally, and are thus not responsible for any copyright infringement that occurs - all they can do is have such content removed once uploaded, provided the content owners inform them of such violations. This laughable perspective is what has allowed the piracy industry to flourish, for it is not feasible for content owners to scour through thousands of file-sharing websites to discover if their content is being illegally distributed, only to then have to submit claims to each website for each specific instance of copyright infringement…only to then have to repeat the process again and again week after week.

This is where new legislation comes into play. We need properly written legislation that enforces intellectual property rights without curtailing 1st amendment freedoms, and which holds piracy facilitators accountable instead of users. This should not be that difficult to put together folks…people simply have to agree on its necessity. Of course, if you happen to be an asshole, then you will want to oppose such measures.

I leave a detailed exploration of solutions for another time, but suffice it to say that if file-sharing companies / websites were simply responsible for policing the content whose distribution they facilitate (instead of the burden falling on the content owners - an impossible task), and there were effective consequences in place for the failure of such companies / websites to perform said responsibilities, then the entire piracy industry would go away pretty fucking quick. This is not to say that file-sharing would stop in total - just that the national and global business of file-sharing would.

Or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Feel free to enlighten me with your comments.