Are Pirates Freetards?

The following is a guest column by Michael Neumann, philosophy teacher at a Canadian university.

The Register’s Andrew Orlowski habitually calls illegal downloaders of music ‘freetards’. But if you’re going to label people tards of any sort, you ought to be able to think straight. Not so Orlowski, whose snarky asides conceal either inconsistencies or unsustainable assumptions.

Since he’s such a joker – he doesn’t actually argue – it’s unclear just where he trips over himself.

He *seems* be saying that freetards are tards because they’re foolishly idealistic, believing that music ought to be free. That’s pie in the sky; the tards will ruin the industry. This is bad because tons of industry workers will suffer. Some, Orlowski suggests, won’t be able to pay the rent.

Well, either we’re supposed to be oh-so-tough-minded or we’re not. If we are, we ought to say, so what? New technologies have always ruined industries, and tough shit – that’s the price of progress.

Or maybe we’re *not* supposed to be oh-so-tough-minded. We’re supposed to care about those nice musicians just trying to make a living. But when someone tells us what we’re *supposed* to feel or do or not do – download, for instance – then we get into morality and aesthetics. In that case, what’s to stop us from getting moral about the music industry as a whole? Only a paytard would suppose that the current system is the best way to manage musical culture.

We should be looking at all sorts of morally/aesthetically better alternatives, probably involving ways to reward artistic excellence, without the ‘obscene’ riches lavished on mediocre pop stars. This is going to irritate Orlowski, because then the downloaders are probably heroes, destroying the old system to make way for something better. But we can’t be tough-minded when it suits Orlowski or mushy when it doesn’t – one or the other.

Maybe Orlowski really wants to tell us that freetards aren’t pursuing own best interests. They’re tards because their ‘music should be free’ ideology is self-defeating. Free music will kill the industry, and therefore the music. Free music just isn’t a viable option.

But if we’re being realistic, the death of the music industry is still no clear disaster. There was great music before there was the industry; why shouldn’t there be great music afterwards? Perhaps there would be hardly any full-time professionals. Why is that so terrible? Who knows, maybe the music would be better.

But maybe the argument is that the freetards wouldn’t get the music they themselves really want – the stuff with big production values and lots of money behind it. This too is far from obvious.

For one thing, the big spectaculars might well continue. Lady Gaga is very happy with commercialism – why exactly couldn’t she get sponsorship for her shows? Beats me. Her manager is talking about giving away her next album for free.

For another, the argument rests on lame assumptions about technology. For example:

“Already, we’re seeing that there’s only a handful of bands left that can afford to make the kinds of records that investigate what you can do in a studio. How many bands are left that can afford to get Rick Rubin and record a record for eight months? I think sophisticated records are in danger of disappearing already, because they’re cost-prohibitive.”

Oh please. No one believes that the digital recording techniques available to everyone are doing anything but getting more and more sophisticated, fast. No, the Betamax standard of recording may not survive. But the VHS standard might well, once again, be Good Enough. No one is in a position to say otherwise.

So there is no moral/aesthetic case against the freetards. There is no tough-minded case. There is no case that they’re working against their own best interests. At the very least, ‘freetards’ are doing the rational thing, trading off a very uncertain loss against a very certain gain. So what case is left?

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