Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Sinking of The Pirate Ship

So, it seems the creators of the Pirate Bay, after years of happily waving their Skull and Crossbones, have been torpedoed on the high seas. A whopping great fine, and a year's prison sentence for the creators of history's greatest portal of free stuff.

Whether the sentence is justified or not, too harsh or too lenient is not my interest here, what is interesting to me is that this is the first major blow against the *ahem* torrent of piracy that has so defined our media lives this past 6 or 7 broadband-enabled years. For most of us, computer nerds or not, recent years have seen us completely change the way we relate to music and movies. Most of us have only a hazy memory of the last time we walked into a shop and bought a CD, all of us have at least one iPod-type gadget and one big multi-Gig hard drive full of movies and music. Many of us have not renewed our membership at a video library in several years, and most of us have a little green icon ticking away in our taskbar all the time, catching little drops of the entertainment nourishment that seems to fall out of the sky these days. The more discerning among us dont even watch TV any more: Why sit through 10 minutes of ads for 20 minutes of entertainment when you can just download the stuff you want?

This is normal now. This is modern life. And as far as that goes, it's OK. From the perspective of my couch, spliff in hand, working my way through the 3rd downloaded series of The Wire, it seems an annoying intrusion to have some dork barge in and throw open the drapes: "But all of this is Illegal! You are stealing things that don't belong to you! Wont somebody please think of the poor addled giant media conglomerates and their dwindling revenues?"

So I snort, and shrug off this jerk and his irritatingly Twentieth Century views on media ownsership and go back to my Wire. Technology has moved on, I grunt, time to stop worrying about ownership and physical discs and copyright, its all just part of the great big wave of information that is our bathwater now. Get with it.

Or not. Like that ad which we see on those rare times when we cant find a torrent of a movie and are forced to walk to the store and rent it, we are all dimly aware of the wrongness of what we're doing: "You wouldn't steal a car..." the ad says, before informing us that software piracy is a crime. And from what we see, it is plain that the average otherwise law-abiding citizen does not agree: They think that there is a huge difference between stealing a car and stealing an album. And the commoness of this belief is worth looking at. Even though it is of course illegal and wrong to steal software, music or movies, most of us do it anyway, and yet none of us would dream of stealing so much as a Snickers in real life.

So why the difference in attitude? Well it seems to boil down to a few basic categories of arguement:

(1) When you steal a car, you deprive someone else of a car. This is bad, and we would feel guilty. When you steal by making a copy of something, however, you havent deprived anybody of anything, except in some small way deprived a large organisation of a percentage of it's profits, a guilt pang which can easily be erased by the logic: "Well if I couldnt have downloaded it, I wouldnt have bought it as it's too expensive, so I havent really deprived them of anything. "

(2) Most of us don't seem to have the moral gene that allows us to feel guilty at a large remove from our victim: So I stole 10 quid from Franz Ferdinand, so what? They are just some guys on TV Ive never met. Try this experiment. Go and see a great up-and-coming band live and enjoy the show, and maybe even chat to them backstage afterwards, then go home and try to torrent their album as you normally would. Feel that queasy feeling of old start to bite? Thought so, that's called 'guilt'.

(3) The vaguely Anarchist/Fuck The System/All Property Is Theft defense. This is a nice one for people of an intellectual bent. This takes the form of a spectrum from: "Fuck 'em, those big record companies are just another big corporation getting rich off the backs of the workers (The musicians) and they deserve to lose their profits." to "Not buying music off these people is a form of protest against Corporate Capitalism/The Miltary Industrial-Complex/Israel." All of which arguments, ignore the fact that your "protest" is taking money from the musicians as much as it is from their corporate masters.

(4) The Motley Crue/P. Diddy/Bloated Rock Star defence: Those lucky bastards are getting blow jobs in the back of Limos and snorting coke off the nipples of teenage starlets while Im asking strangers on a phone line if they would like to upgrade their Verizon Wireless Service to our New Monthly Plan. Fuck 'em.

Now this one of course, holds about as much water as the Rock Star's J.D on the rocks: The whole reason to be worried about music piracy is not that it will reduce P. Diddy's Salary from 20 Million a year to 10. This is not the problem. The problem is way further down the pecking order: Those ordinary musicians (who also happen to be the ones making the best music) who would normally have gotten by making a small living salary of say 30,000 dollars a year from their fanbase. In a world in which music is free, that revenue is gone, and that guy who wrote that song that you want played at your funeral is probably sitting in the cubicle next to yours fielding calls from irate account holders.

Imagine if you will, if the same drastic restructuring were to occur in any other artistic field: Imagine if somebody said to the struggling painter, "Yeah listen, love your work, in fact I have some above my mantlepieice, but paintings are just not something we pay for anymore, sorry." Or to a writer "Great novel, changed my life, but you'd probably have written it cash or no cash, so I'll give you my goodwill instead of $8.99...Well maybe you can convince some local companies to stick some ads in between chapters 3 and 4? Well there's always book tours and speaking engagements...."

Which leads us to number (4) The Gigs Defence: So recorded music has become a loss leader: The CD or download is now merely an ad for the main attraction: The Gig. That's where artists can make their money now, problem solved. Well, not quite. What this fails to notice, is that for the vast majority of artists the costs of gigging either outstrip or roughly equal the amount of money made from it. It is only when you get closer to Sting's level that you start making money. Gigs used to be a way of generating interest in albums, which was where money was made. Now we are told they are supposed to be a way of generating revenue on their own. But for most artists, playing to 80 appreciative punters in an intimate bar will barely pay for the petrol money that got them there.

Now of course, real musicians are not in it for the money, and will probably continue doing what they do anyway. Maybe all this new technology will do is strip away the Breadheads from the True Artists. Well either that, or consign a whole generation of Lennon/McCartneys, Morisseys and Marrs to hock their guitars to pay the electricity bill.

And (5) is The Disingenuous Civil Liberties Defense: Stopping people from illegal downloading is a restriction of personal liberty, and before we know it we'll all be goose-stepping around the place and governments will be controlling our every thought and deed with microchips in our heads.

This is quite plainly bullshit - and most of the progenitors of this arguement are clever enough to know so too. If we go back to the days when regular bricks -and-mortar highways were the hippest new thing (as opposed to Information Ones) - nobody would have pleaded civil liberties when government set a Speed Limit on them, nor is anybody particularly worried that you're not allowed to drive on them after necking a bottle of whiskey. These are freedoms we are quite happy to restrict. Restricting people's freedom to commit crimes, be they bricks-and-mortar crimes or dot com ones, in no way conflicts with Civil Liberties, in fact it strengthens them. It is , as tedious and as Poli-Sci 101 as it sounds, the basis *yawn* of Civilization.

And furthermore, having advanced to the point where so many of our products are virtual rather than physical, it is EVEN MORE important that we protect Intellectual Copyright, not, as so many seem to wish, to abandon the idea of it altogether.

Another arguement we hear is the Technological One (6) where it argued that for vaguely understood technological reasons, you cant protect information thats out there on the Net, pirates will always find away around Copy Protections/DRM/IP trackers and so on. Which may be true, but ignores one basic truth: The more difficult and dangerous we make piracy, the more people won't bother to do it: Look at computer games for example: The vast majority of us freely copy music and movies, but tend not to pirate computer games at anything like the same rate. Why?

The answer is simple: The difficulty or downloading something that is 8 or 9 Gigs in size and having to fiddle around with CD-keygens and .iso files is not worth the quick jaunt to the shop and the cover price of 19.99 (and 7.99 after a year or two) , for something that will give you between 40 and 80 hours of entertainment. So we buy it. Most of the time.

If illegally downloading music meant installing some-sort of proxy browser that hid your IP from your ISP, and you had to trawl through some darker corners of the internet to get your torrents in the first place - probably to the kinds of sites that come with a squillion pop-ups, malware, spyware and annoying "Vote For My Website!" prompts, a huge majority of people would simply say "Fuck it." and stump up the 5 or so bucks for an album download direct from the band's website.

As well as this, if legal repercussions became a real possibility as opposed to a vague laughable threat, most of the decent folk would stop the moment they heard that a friend of theirs got a letter in the door saying that they now owed a $1000 dollar fine. Only the true die-hards would continue past that point.

Now to qualify: I say all of this as an inveterate pirate myself: From the day in 1986 I figured out how to stick a microphone up to a stereo speaker and press record, I have loved copying music that didnt belong to me: All through the 90's most of my music collection was tapes, when I got my first CD burner 10 years ago, I never looked back: I watched helplessly as my once colouful wall of store-bought CD's morphed into wallets full of silver discs with marker on them, and then slowly watched them transmogrify into a hundred-buck Western Digital MyBook and a shiny iPod.

So I'm a hypocrite then? Well yes, I am. But then you don't ask a Mormon for advice on how to deal with the World's drug problem. I know full well, that the best way of stopping a guy like me (and almost everybody I know) from copying stuff, is to make it too hard, too fiddly, too risky, too technical, too nerdy or too dangerous. In real life, I have only ever met one person who doesn't pirate heroic quantities of music and movies and he, you guessed it, is a music industry professional. Lets face facts here: EVERYBODY who isnt a music industry professional is doing it, and in huge quantities too, and it is extremely unlikely that you will get them to stop by "conciousness-raising" or appealing to their better nature.

So outside of the world of sticker-campaigns saying "Downloading is Killing Music", what options remain? If we dispense immediately with any sort of idea of a perfect copy-protection system (they are always broken in 5 seconds flat) what we can do is actually pretty simple: Here are my suggestions:

(1) ISP's required by law to send you threatening letters if you are downloading illegal stuff, and cut off your internet service if you do it more than say, three times. Beyond that, criminal prosecution and fines become automatic. Do it a fourth time: 1000 dollar fine, do it a 5th 10,000 and so on. This is not snooping or restriction of civil liberties, it is no different to being caught shoplifting.

(2) Subscription based service gives you access to whatever music you like, yearly. You pay say 100 to 150 dollars a year for the privelege of downloading whatever you want. The money is shared out to the artists according to how many downloads they generated. The average person doesnt spend and never has, much more than this amount of money on music, so it would add up to the same basic amount of revenue. Simlar service exists for movies, though with less money, as movies can still make money from Cinema and tie-ins.

(3) Could possibly institute an amnesty on all downloading of old music which has already generated enough revenue for its creators. I dont see much crime in downloading Dark Side of The Moon, when Roger Waters and David Gilmour are already comfortably settled on the pages of Forbe's Rich List. Ditto for The Beatles and other older music that has made piles of cash and is practically a part of our shared heritage at this stage: The point of all of this is to ensure that new, up-and-coming artists can earn enough money to feed themselves by providing entertainment for everybody else.

So where does this leave the giant record labels you might ask? Well, hopefully it doesnt. There is no reason for them to exist in their present form. They once held the position that they did by monopolising the then very expensive Means of Production: The recording studios, pressing plants, stores and distribution networks that made up the Music Industry. Now that all that heavy duty industry now fits inside a laptop, their role should become reduced to that of marketing and advertising agencies: An Artist will hire them to promote his music (which he owns) and pay them a percentage of his profits (or a fixed fee) for doing so - in the same way in which any other business works with an advertising agency. They will not 'own' an artist or his music, and they certainly will not make anything like the huge percentages of the music revenue that they do now - that, hopefully will be going to the guys and girls who create the damn prduct in the first place.

One day, we will look back on the era of illegal downloading the way we now look back on the era of Drunk-Driving. Once upon a time, respectable, upstanding folk thought nothing of getting a few belts of scotch in to them and driving home. You would have been seen as quite a bore if you suggested otherwise in 1976 and probably had your sexual orientation called into question too. However, sometime in the 1980's attitudes and laws began to change and most of us look with horror on anyone who drives drunk, still less boasts about it.

And this didnt happen merely because people became more conscious of the danger: It happened because we introduced laws that made sure it was never tolerated. It is analogous, I think to the early days of The Fire Service: Previously, in some countries the Fire Department was merely a bunch of private companies, with whom you signed an agreement that they would protect your property in case of fire: If your house was on fire and you didnt have a contract with the nearest company, they'd let it burn to the ground.

Eventually, we realised that this was a pretty crummy way to run an essential service and we developed something better: A proper, government sponsored service that put out fires, whoever's they might be. Doubtless there were people then too saying that fires are inevitable, that government organisations are oppressive, that fire is simply the way of things, and that individuals should look after their own damn business. Thankfully however, we didn't listen to them.


  1. Awesome article. Thought provoking, answers a lot of questions. I'm voting for YOU, dude!

  2. Probably the best article I've read on the subject!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thanks for this article!
    - a struggling musician

  5. Interesting reading and lots of well thought arguments. Although i must say i dont come to all the same conclusions as you. Neither do i think making culture avalible for everyone is comparable to gambling with peoples lifes by driving drunk.

    I acctually think sharing is a good idea, and the gain we get from unlimited spread of music, book, movies and art by far outweighs the injustice in the fact that some artists will have to keep their dayjobs.
    (An unforseen benefit is the demise of "factory produced" radio hit music like Britney.)

    Best regards / UA