Copyright Infringement: Worse Than Murder?

By Guest Blogger

I am a criminal. I have years of experience with a certain criminal activity. I started in high school on advice from a friend, and pretty soon I found a group of similarly-inclined friends to roll with and we ratcheted up our involvement some more. I learned new techniques in college and avoided the crackdowns happening all around me. I don’t do it anymore, and I’ve never been caught and punished, but I can assure you that if I had been caught, my punishment would have been harsher than if I had kidnapped a child, burned down a house, started a dogfighting ring, or even committed second-degree murder. No joke – it’s that bad.

What am I talking about? File-sharing. Copyright infringement. Piracy. Call it what you want: one way or another it’s about downloading somebody’s property without paying for it. Sixty million Americans are guilty of it, by the way; chances are you’ve done it before, and if you haven’t, your kids probably have BitTorrent chugging along in the other room as we speak (that’s why this page loaded so slowly.) Is it a crime? You’re darn tootin’ it is. Is it wrong? Well…sure, maybe, I guess. Are our laws against it just and effective? Absolutely and emphatically not.

It’s difficult to come up with arguments defending file-sharers that don’t make me, a self-avowed file-sharer, come off as a self-congratulating twit. At the end of the day you’re taking the work product of an artist you love, the very sweat of Beyonce‘s brow, without paying for it in return. That’s not something to be proud of. There’s more in play here, though, than that simple characterization reflects. First of all, the record label generally holds the copyright to a recording and makes most of the money from the sale of a CD. If you steal a CD, you’re only taking a dollar or two our of Beyonce‘s pocket. Mostly you’re robbing the record company — of course, you’re still robbing them, but they’re less sympathetic targets to be sure. It’s a similar deal with online purchases, say, through iTunes: artists get about ten cents off a 99-cent download. In fact, most artists arguably benefit from piracy: they forego the dollar in royalties for increased exposure to their fanbase and attracting new listeners who aren’t interested enough (yet) to pay to hear them, which can translate into increased ticket sales at concerts and more “star power”. For every Kid Rock or Lars Ulrich who complains about evil file-sharers, there’s a hundred lesser-known artists who couldn’t get their music heard until they started giving it away for free on the internet.

Not to mention the fact that file sharing isn’t the same as theft. Theft removes the original; file sharing makes a copy. Costs are decreasing to nearly nothing in the recording industry, from recording to replicating to distribution. The only big cost in the recording industry is promotion: the investment required to create a megastar like Beyonce, the publicity required to sell a million, ten million, twenty million copies of a record. There’s a legitimate question about whether this is something we want as a consumer society, but a digression on aesthetics would require more space than I want to take up here. Suffice it to say that music isn’t going to disappear overnight if piracy is not reined in.

And yet, it’s wrong. And yet, you can’t stop it. It’s simply too quick, cheap, and easy to pirate music. The technology used to do so has too many critically important uses to be banned. It’s completely impossible to catch everyone who pirates music, or to even catch enough to deter those who got away with it. In fact, most legitimate music files these days are filled with DRM, data that limits what a user can do with the file. Pirated files lack this anti-feature, meaning that illegal versions of files are literally superior to legitimate versions. Figure that one out. No wonder the music industry is falling apart.

And yet, it’s wrong. You’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you without paying for it, and that can never be right. What to do about it? The best the RIAA can do right now is lobby for hideously draconian penalties for what for most people is a relatively innocuous crime, though a crime nonetheless. File-sharing is not a worse crime than second-degree murder, and it’s absurd to punish it as if it were. The industry is shooting itself in the foot: these punishments are patently unjust, and every one of them arouses more spite and ill-will toward the industry that lobbies for them. It gets worse, though: France (almost) had a three-strikes policy against file-sharing that culminates in disconnection from the internet. There’s all kinds of disgraceful procedural issues in play here, but the effect of the penalty itself is stunning. In this day and age it’s comparable to a judge removing you from your home and, further still, making it a crime for anyone else to provide you with housing. For real.

If you’re a musician, you’re probably not going to get rich based on your music alone. That’s nothing new, though: if you’re a musician you knew that from the get-go. In the new age of file-sharing, you’re not going to make much at all from music sales, but the flipside is that it’s quicker, cheaper, and easier than ever before to get your music heard by your target audience. You can make money by creating scarce, intrinsically valuable objects: Trent Reznor‘s been giving his music away and charging for special-edition objects that can’t be digitized. You can simply ask your fans to pay what they think your music is worth, like Radiohead and Girl Talk. And, you know what, you can still play live. With Michael Jackson’s passing, though, we may have also seen the death of ‘the Thriller,’ that is, a single record capable of being as profitable as Thriller. The record industry needs to recognize this and move on to another business model, and if they die, so be it; if they can’t justify their value they’re no longer necessary. The industry is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and shooting anyone who sits in the chairs. There’s only so much longer this can go on before they sink into oblivion.

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