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Thursday, 8 March 2012

A pox on illegal downloads, me hearties

My local DVD rental shop has just pulled down its rattling metal shutters for the last time, which has focused attention inside the Glamour Cave on the subject of paying for culture (or "content" as it's often described these days. I always think that makes it sound as if it comes in a tin). As a side-effect it's also made me feel a bit older, as if I've lost a slightly smelly, close friend to a war of attrition (against new technology): the carpets in there had needed a clean for about five years but I was still exceptionally fond of the place. I liked the owner and I'd had hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of pleasure as a result of borrowing videos and DVDs from him.

Recently I'd also been in the habit of borrowing movies and box sets from Love Film and then, when I ran out of monthly credits or was waiting for the next arrival to land on the doormat, I would go down to the video shop to rent the latest releases, usually several times a month.

When I moved here a decade and a half ago it won't surprise you to hear that the only options were the video shop or the cinema. So my evolving habits - which are, hands up, motivated by the convenience and cheapness of DVDs by post - have been among the reasons for poor old Mohammed's decline in business. Thanks to the adoption of similar habits by thousands of younger people moving into the area in recent years, a reevaluation all around is now unavoidable.

Mohammed, the rental shop owner, should be OK. He owns the freehold and is on the look out for a bright young Australian who, he hopes, will turn it into a trendy wifi cafe like several other successful new ventures nearby. There goes the neighbourhood.

But to keep up with recent releases it looks as if there's now no choice for discerning eastenders but to stream films over the internet. This sounds kind of OK. Except I've got a nasty feeling that my broadband is capped and that on the occasions when I've exceeded my monthly data limit it's been due to an overdose of iPlayer. This means, I think, that streaming is potentially expensive because quite apart from buying the film over the internet for a fixed price - Love Film again? - I'll be running the risk of having to pay extra for the broadband space *sighs the sigh of the resigned* I suppose I'll get the hang of it eventually.

When I've mentioned my concerns to friends I've been told several times now that they know someone a decade or so younger than themselves who's able to download all the latest Hollywood releases completely free - apart from the cost of the broadband, I assume - from some internet site or other. Come to think of it, I know someone who does this and they are an otherwise upstanding member of society. I may even be related to them.

However. Although getting free stuff always sounds good in the abstract, I've realised over recent weeks that I also have some strongly negative feelings about it in practice. I'm not sure how it crept up on me - I may be getting old or it may be that I have finally recognised that I am, basically, a content-provider myself (which probably represents a conflict of interests here). But the same part of me that believes in civic responsibility, not dropping litter and being kind to people also feels increasingly that downloading films, music or books for free from the internet would be, um, wrong.

I think, that with the unthinking part of my brain, I used to believe it was a victimless crime.

I definitely used to think that those adverts at the cinema warning against film piracy were ludicrous.  And in some respects they were. I mean, I know this is slightly out of date now but my strongest memory of these ads is of the ones with the hellish dungeon metaphor, which seemed like ridiculous and unnecessary hyperbole. Whatever the punishment for film piracy, I've definitely always known that you're highly unlikely to be kidnapped and taken to the set of Legend, then forced to submit to an eternity of being branded/buggered by blacksmiths. What exactly was the premise of that ad?

The present anti-piracy ad shown at cinemas isn't much better. 

You wouldn't steal a handbag, you wouldn't steal a car. No! Obviously you wouldn't! These are crimes against real people who would be rightly angry and probably report you to the police, who might want to put you in prison for it. If you stole a handbag or a car you would be making your victims' lives worse in ways that are obvious and irrefutable. This is such a silly argument that it has spawned this spoof by the makers of The IT Crowd.

The problem is that it isn't immediately obvious to a lot of otherwise kind and thoughtful people that illegally downloading DVDs and CDs isn't a victimless crime either, just a different order of crime in which the victim is removed from the perpetrator by several degrees.

I really think that it's up to the makers of these ads to pull out the stops and make a better case against piracy. The ads should lay it out clearly and distinctly because it's an argument that, I think, is persuasive in its own right. 

How about some footage of a busker having his hat containing a few measly coins stolen - which is far better metaphor for illegal music downloads than being buggered by blacksmiths. Or a writer who, due to the loss of income represented by piracy is unable to afford to switch their heating on? How about a struggling film maker with holes in their shoes? These are straitened times and the creative industries are not well paid even when the economy is booming - except for those who've made it to the sunlit uplands. For every success you see on the red carpets at awards times. though, there are thousands who aren't present because they're still working on it. 

We all enjoy the fruit of the creative industries' labours when it turns out to be Downton Abbey, The Artist, Bellowhead or that other thing that you like. But to reach the point at which someone creative can make a living from what they do it might take years of honing their skills and failing better often. And anyway: who is to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy when it comes to something as subjective as culture? Spotting "the man" - should you be interested in doing so - is made harder by the net than ever before and it's worth bearing in mind that even relatively successful musicians and writers have a long history of being ripped off by the middle men they relied on to help them succeed. It's a tradition.

There's also the unavoidable fact of retrospective payment with which to contend. Musicians, writers and film-makers get paid after their "product" has been released because it's only when people buy it that the scale of their success - or otherwise - is apparent. Every deal in the creative industries has a sales component - if it doesn't there is something awry. But it makes them vulnerable to those who believe that  their entertainment is a god-given right.  Illegal downloads represent a kind of real politik, a force majeure. Of course someone can take it if they want to because once a song is out there the originator relies on the honesty of those who consume it. Indeed, musicians would like people to walk down the street humming their tunes. But people are notoriously dishonest and self-interested and often don't recognise that liking something is different from owning it.

But these kinds of arguments are a slippery slope. Downloading is a discreet issue and you shouldn't steal the fruit of people's labour full stop. This isn't because you should be afraid of getting caught - which everyone knows realistically with music and film piracy is a small risk - and which the silly cinema ad is rather cack-handedly trying to imply with its scary music. The case is much simpler than that. It is that you shouldn't take the fruit of someone's labour for free it because it's wrong and decent people simply don't do it

Perhaps the rise of the internet and the way in which Soundcloud, Kindle and YouTube have flattened out and democratised the way the culture is consumed, has made it easier to see the truth in this argument. For me at least. 

I should say, for clarity's sake, that some free material on the net is marketing. For instance a musician might put up some music to tempt the folk awards judges - should any of them happened to have access to the interweb - to listen to an entire album. Or perhaps to entice music-lovers to a gig (which is, in turn, one of the most successful ways to enthuse people about buying a CD these days). But on the whole you can tell which is marketing and which is "piracy" because the marketing will be done by the band or film-maker themself on their own website, or somewhere else reputable, and what you see is unlikely to represent the entirety of their output. It's one of those "know it when you see it" situations.

Also calling illegal downloading "piracy" is doing it the same favour that pirates have always received: it implies an unearned veneer of something buccaneering or obliquely admirable about the form of theft to which the term is applied.

In truth, believing that the world owes you a living - that you deserve something for nothing - is the flip side of believing that no one else deserves one. What they have in common, I think, is that they are both positions taken on this issue by people who probably haven't given it much thought.

Illegally downloading your favourite music, films or books is a way of killing the thing that you love. It is unethical, unsustainable and unfair. 

That's what I wanted to say. 

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  1. It's an interesting argument from a purely moral viewpoint, but it's on shaky economic ground. The actual availability and take-up of illegitimate downloads says *nothing* about sales lost to the original creator (literally nothing - there's no generally applicable evidence either way), so there's no *economic* justification to the conclusion that downloading is a way of killing the thing that you love. The one thing it does tell you is that there's a (regrettably unquantifiable) demand for the product, and one of the very few "known knowns" in this arena is that legitimate venues which are more convenient than illegitimate ones win every time.

    This is why trying to convince people not to download content illegitimately by showing them a starving busker will fail: because people *know* the analogy is flawed. There is no sense in which an illegitimate download is like taking coins from his hat. A download, or even a thousand downloads, don't correspond to money that he has being taken from him, or to a single lost sale. They don't affect his ability to eat. This is just the technical reality of the situation. You can make the moral argument that taking control of the distribution of his work out of *his* hands is prima facie wrong, but that's a different discussion entirely.

    You say "...musicians would like people to walk down the street humming their tunes." Be that as it may, they aren't the problem, and concentrating on that side of the issue is to understandably fall for a heavily propagandised message. Copyright silos in the form of record labels and film studios are the problem. The problem comes when copyright silos become wealthy enough to buy legislation to make themselves more powerful and aggregative. They become cultural black holes, insisting that everyone else process in their orbit. We've seen this happen. It's still happening now. The Pirate Party is growing largely as a reaction to this sort of land-grab.

    If there is harm in illegitimate downloading, it is being done by removing their control over distribution channels for the content they have rights to. I don't know if that's a genuine economic harm or not. It's a change, certainly, but not all changes are harmful, especially when you take into account the enormous broken window fallacy which lies at the heart of the perpetual transferable copyright argument.

    So: morally? You're probably right, gaining access to content in a way the original creator hasn't approved might be wrong, if you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs. That doesn't make appealing to economics the right way to convince people.

    On another note, I also think you might have misinterpreted where the expression "piracy" used in this context came from. It was originally used before the advent of copyright, back when piracy on the high seas was a very real threat to day-to-day commerce. It was used *by the rights-holders* to describe people violating their monopoly charter, and it's been used that way ever since. It's only very recently that it's been reclaimed by the "other side" as a positive term.

  2. My instinct is to agree with you. When you consume something the provider should benefit and you should compensate him. But there's a line to be drawn somewhere, and I don't know where it should be.
    Let me explain (using the example of music rather than video, which is too new a technology to look at the same length of history). Before the invention of recording media just over a hundred years ago, payment for music was never an issue, because the performer would be paid for a performance at the time of the performance. An author took protection in copyright, but the technology didn't exist to winkle out every last penny from a work.
    Nowadays, that technology is in place, and we are asked to pay for the performance when we go to a concert, for a recording when we want to listen to the same music (and in the case of much of my music collection I have paid for it 3 times - for vinyl, cassette and CD), for the sheet music if we want to play it (even the simple chord and tab sites on the WWW are under attack by the American Music Publisher's Association), for the right to use a song as music on hold (to the PRS who even try to wring a few quid out of small businesses if they have a radio playing in the workplace) and if an amateur performer in a pub sings a song (also the PRS).
    Now, at what point is it reasonable to say "Enough. I have paid for this artifact. Now let me enjoy it".
    Also, what activities are reasonable? For example, is it ok for me to lend a cd to a friend whom I think may enjoy the music (or a DVD)? If so, how about copying a cd for a friend for the same reason? If that's something that should be banned, how about creating a cd for a party? How about if it's an ipod playlist?
    Do you see what I mean? Where does one draw the line?
    I don't have the answers, but I am aware that most content is licensed by large corporations, not the talent that created it. They buy the rights to it cheaply, in many cases (I think it's well documented that sometimes they get it without paying for it at all) and it is those large corporations who seek to make the maximum profit they can from such cheaply acquired content. I have little sympathy with their tears of rage and frustration that technology now exists to enable consumers to bypass their income generating systems.
    I fully endorse and applaud the right of a creative artiste or an author to be paid well for his or her work. But once these people have left the arena, I am not content to allow middlemen and profiteers to continue to benefit for many years from the fruit of someone else's labour.
    Sorry, Emma. Although I agree with a major part of what you say, I do not think that the current royalty payment environment works in a reasonable manner. So I think the current framework of copyright and other intellectual property law needs radical change in order to become fair. And until that happens, I cannot condemn all internet "piracy".

  3. I think your local rental shop failed due to inability to compete with online renters such as Netflix,, not due to illegal downloads. The online retailers are making loads of money despite the illegal downloads aren't they?
    Sorry to say it, but the business model for walk-in video renters is just obsolete. They filled a niche for a while and made a nice living, but that niche no longer exists due to the rent-by-mail model, as well as the up-and-coming online rental model. Why make a special trip to a shop when you can simply make a selection on your screen and be viewing dvd-quality movies a few minutes later?

    Also, you seem to be only remembering the good experiences you had at the local renter ... don't you remember the frustrating aspect of depending on Blockbuster to have the videotape/dvd in stock when you wanted to rent it only to find you made a wasted trip due to all the copies having been rented?

  4. Alex. I'm guessing that you download illegally? I don't see a killer argument in favour of stealing people's work in your reply. Btw I know lots of people who put their own work online, on the iTunes store and in Kindle. If you can't see the analogy between stealing from a busker's hat and stealing from a musician's online income, you may not be trying very hard.


  5. You guess wrong, I'm afraid. I certainly used to pirate stuff, but I just can't be bothered these days. Between iplayer, netflix and lovefilm, my needs (such as they are) are perfectly well served. For small content producers (like authors, especially ones in a niche market) I'll pay for content as directly as possible, not because "theft" is wrong (if you will insist on making that mistaken elision), but because paying is right. Paying encourages small producers to produce more, in a way that seems disproportionately effective given the sums involved, and I know that unless I *do* pay for the sort of content I want and need, it just won't get made.

    > I don't see a killer argument in favour of stealing people's work in your reply.

    I'm not trying to make an argument in favour of "stealing people's work", I'm pointing out a fundamental flaw in *one* argument against piracy.

    > Btw I know lots of people who put their own work online, on the iTunes store and in Kindle.

    So what? Quite apart from the fact that just knowing (or being) a content producer doesn't give you an obligation to support copyright maximalism, publishing to iTunes or Kindle or any one of a hundred other online stores isn't exactly rare. I don't think it's reasonable to assume you're talking from a position of holding privileged knowledge.

    > If you can't see the analogy between stealing from a busker's hat and stealing from a musician's online income, you may not be trying very hard.

    Oh, I see the analogy. I see it, and I see that it is wrong, in a very important way. There's a good reason that copyright infringement isn't covered by the same laws as theft: it's fundamentally not the same thing. You are stating that they are the same without justifying it, and implying that my only reasons for disagreeing must be either that I am lazy, or that I have a guilty conscience. There is a third option: that given approximately the same access to information as you, I've just come to a very different conclusion.

    I have no problem whatsoever with your position on this. As I said, it's a morally justifiable viewpoint. I just get annoyed when I see the same tired, broken arguments and appeals to raw emotion trotted out by people who are smart enough to know better, and it's remarkably hard to have rational discourse under a presumption of bad faith.


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