Reason and Sceptical Thinking on Politics, Philosophy and Technology

Thursday, 17 December 2009

File Sharing and Piracy

My inspiration for this article and my current, elaborated view on the subject stems from a New Scientist magazine, entitled “Finding a fair price for free knowledge” which was about piracy and file sharing. The articles discussion went right back to the origins of Capitalism, with the rise of the system due to scarcity of resource. This scarcity has led to the rationing system that we still live by today (Wages, Investment capital).

The article made hints to the fact that the way that media is now shared around the internet has led to a partition of the economy where scarcity either does not, or does not have to exist any longer. After reading this article I felt my understanding of the issue to go to much deeper depths, and hence I have written this discussion on the issue to highlight my views.

I will begin by outlining the most common issues raised and discussed by most on this matter, many of which will be familiar to the layperson. I will also add my opinion on the particular issue.

Most people that I know would admit to me that they have in the past downloaded or possessed a song, album, Film, TV programme or piece of software. In the eyes of the law this is illegal, as they have not paid the copyright holder their asking price. The copyright holder claims that they are losing revenue by the file-sharer not paying for their downloaded items. This however is not true in many cases.

For example, most of my aforementioned friends who download would certainly agree that they could not afford all of the media they get from the internet. If they did not download, they simple would never experience them. How is this stealing? It causes no loss of revenue if the user could never afford them anyway. Considering the increasingly extortionate prices of DVDs and CDs these days its hard to moralise about stealing and lost revenue. In today's society of marginalising relative poverty, with a growing, comfortable middle class contrasted by less fortunate underclass, as well as loan and debt-ridden students, it is almost inevitable that file sharing and pirated media is used almost as a kind of 'Equalising force'.

Another point I would like to make is – How is downloading material from the internet any more harmful to the copyright holder in terms of revenue than purchasing the same goods second hand, or watching them on TV? By this same logic borrowing a film off a friend rather than buying it is stealing. A related point I have encountered is- that if one watches a television programme on TV, but then wishes to watch it again, possibly in a previously unseen order, or keep it for later reference, then there is nothing wrong with downloading for this reason – a viewpoint I agree with, especially considering the financial dues have been paid to the producer or copyright holder already, in terms of paid TV licences or subscription fees.

These arguments make claims that the industry is loosing revenue due to file sharing highly speculative and subjective. I'd like to highlight at this point that although we hear almost constant protests from the Music, Film and software producers that they are losing revenue and their legacy is at risk, these industries continue to be profitable and in some cases even expand, at least for the foreseeable future.

Even if latest celebrity, record giants and Hollywood producers are losing some revenue from file sharing, does anybody really care? I myself would not lose any sleep from knowing that I'm not helping to line the pockets of the already mega rich by downloading a film.

What of the hard working artists who are losing money do you say? Well, if there are major protests from singers and other celebrities over their loss of revenue, it just goes to highlight what they are really all about; Money, and making lots of it, and not the music etc. True artists do it for the love of their work, and if they should take a hit to their earnings, so be it; they should earn a regular wage like the rest of us hard working people.

On this note, I recently heard a statistic that a record producer had lost £300,000 in lost revenue, and that 10% of this would be spent on the finding of 'New Talent' i.e. new bands etc. This sob story and almost desperate ploy by the industry can easily be countered. It costs very little to start up a band (the shear number of bands being started all the time is testimony to this) and these artists are quickly finding that they do not even need a record deal to make it, with the free sharing potential of the internet (where they can share their work for free, gain revenue though promotions, advertising etc or even charge per download), and so leads into my next point.

Am I the only one who feels that art (especially music and film) becomes more worthless the more it becomes commercialised? I'm sure I'm not alone. There are in fact university studies that show that commercialisation stunts artistic expression. So much great music was created by poor, unknown individuals who expected to get nowhere, or expected little in return. Bob Marley was one example. Some of the greatest films ever made where by cash strapped independent film makers.

There was once a time when singers and bands (and their success) where at the whim of record producers; to get their work out to the listeners of the mass public required a physical medium – Vinyl, Tapes, CDs, and Now DVDs. The production of these media costed money, hence there was a scarcity. The free sharing potential of the internet means that this scarcity for these goods no longer has to exist, they can be consumed (or at least transferred) for free, hence making the producers redundant.

These producers know that they are quickly becoming redundant, and this is why they are currently making these last minute desperate attempts to ensure their survival. The prosecution and attempted shut-down of many torrent websites, in Ireland, one major ISP has been pressured into blocking access to prominent torrent file listing website. In Britain and America there are plans to block access to those accused of downloading copyrighted material downloaded from the internet. In one particular case, a single mother was fined $113 Million for sharing 31 songs on her PC – such cases are designed to scare people away from free file sharing, but what they really do is victimise ordinary people and make themselves (Producers) look like money grabbing monsters.

The sharing of media through electronic form has a lesser impact on the environment. Far less energy is required to transfer music or video through the internet than is required to manufacture and transport physical media such as CDs and DVDs. Also, there is the problem of how to dispose of the mass of unwanted media after it is no longer wanted/damaged.

Before going any further, I would like to discuss the entire issue copyright and intellectual property. Going back to the issue of scarcity, legal 'intellectual' property creates an altogether new kind of scarcity - artificial scarcity. Where as there is a real scarcity of coal in the world, electronic media can be replicated at a very low cost (or now, none at all). It was therefore a highly lucrative idea to create a form of scarcity, and this would later become defended by law.

It is this legal tool that is used by corporations to make millions from a 3 minute track, where as the average working person doesn't earn the same amount in their working lives. You may make the argument that this is just the way life is, and its their right, their property. But the point I am making is, that this legal right is only an invention, an abstract idea, created for a purpose; The purpose of making money.

Why do we create laws? Ideally a law is created to serve an injustice. If a thief steals a handbag of an old lady, depriving her of her pension, then we most certainly would call this an injustice. However, copyright laws were not invented to solve an injustice, in fact they are doing the opposite they are helping to create divides in our society.

The divide I am talking about is the growing gap between a class people who create profitable 'intellectual' media - song writers/singers, film stars, wealthy share/capital holders who are quickly contrasting with ordinary, working people. What's even worse, these legal inventions mean that the poorer class in society are paying for the opulence of the wealthier class.

Lets take a pragmatic approach here. Do we, as a society, want this to happen? Do the want wealth to be concentrated in this way? or would it be better spent on things as a society that will benefit us all.

My final point on copyright is this - Can we really own an idea? I think the concept is a complete fallacy. All ideas down just come out of thin air; they are built on other ideas, they come from inspiration. In essence, this article was inspired by various other articles that I have written brought together by my mind. Did I steal, or 'pirate' those ideas? I think not.

But, getting back to the main point of this article - can the authorities actually do anything to prevent illegal file sharing? Or is it simply inevitable?

After reviewing the evidence, I've found that it is highly unlikely that it would be physically impossible to prevent file sharing on the internet, short of shutting down the internet. For a start, the shear number of people who download illegally is testimony to this, they could not gather evidence and prosecute everyone. It would require and army of police, analysts and lawyers that would be larger and cost more than the current standing army. The constant monitoring of all internet use would be a serious breach of privacy, and lead to a truly Orwellian Society.

Could internet monitoring even work? From an ISPs point of view, looking at a person downloading say, a 2 GB file through a torrent protocol, at any given time it appears they are just sending and receiving a multitude of unidentified packets, addressed to various other users – it is impossible to determine what they are downloading without downloading the entire file, and even then it would not be easily categorised and identified as copyrighted material. This is a highly time consuming and will require costly expertise, possibly exceeding the cost of the armed forces and police combined.

Could they stop file sharing in any other way, such as closing down torrent sites? The answer is almost certainly no. Every time a torrent sourcing website is closed down, another one appear. They could close down every torrent site, and the source files would still be shared through communities, word of mouth etc. Besides, torrents partially arose due to the attempted closing down of P2P networks such as napster. P2P, Torrents, Direct FTP file transfer, what's next?

However, I believe that the persecution of file sharers is not a positive things, and that the rise of freedom of media like this can be a force for good. Just like the printing press of the renaissance, a new technological change such as this, will lead to a major change in our society. Not only are the old tides of scarcity are changing, but file sharing will lead to a different way of thinking among people in our society. We may move away from our wealth and money-centric society to one which is based on sharing and freedom of expression. This has already begun in the rise of open source software (Linux Distros, Open-Office etc), artists and music makers who share their work for free, and entertainment sources such as Youtube and I-player etc.

Karl Marx described history as following a process known as the Materialistic Dialectic. Each proceeding society evolves into the next by a series of societal or technological changes. Slavery becomes Feudalism, Feudalism becomes Capitalism. The one thing that all these preceding societies has in common is the antagonism between the working and ruling class. The theory states that ultimately, the final stage in this process will be a rebellion of the working class against the ruling class, and hence creating their own society, governed by them. But perhaps such a revolution would take place on the internet – Through sharing of resources and the creation of a 'gift' economy and a free channel of expression.

Perhaps my mention of Marx is mere speculation, but one thing is for sure – The rise of free file sharing will lead to a much more open society where artistic expression is not concentrated in the hands of so few. Finally with advances set to be made in the areas of Nano-Technology replication in the next few decades coupled with this freedom of information, who knows what ends there are to the possibilities?