Piracy, Morals and The Need for Change

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Morals are often defined by what the general public sees as right or wrong. Most people don't feel that they're doing wrong when they download an MP3 or share a movie, but in most countries they are actually breaking laws, laws which do not reflect what the general public considers to be legal, fair use, or even moral.

Law and morals are clearly out of sync when it concerns sharing copyrighted works on the Internet. To give an example, David Pogue, technology writer for the New York Times often questions his public during talks to find out where the line between wrong and right lies in this case. He starts of with a simple statement such as:

“I own a certain CD, but it got scratched. So I borrow the same CD from the library and rip it to my computer.”

He then asks the public whether they think it’s wrong or not. Normally the more extreme the examples are, the more hands are raised, but when he spoke to an audience of 500 college students, something different happened.

Finally, with mock exasperation, I said, “O.K., let’s try one that’s a little less complicated: You want a movie or an album. You don’t want to pay for it. So you download it.” There it was: the bald-faced, worst-case example, without any nuance or mitigating factors whatsoever. “Who thinks that might be wrong?” Two hands out of 500.

Pogue was blown away by this response, and he realized that there is a clear generation gap when it comes to copyright morals. Indeed there is, but what else do you expect from a generation grew up with iPods, CD-burners and the biggest copying machine ever invented (the Internet) at their fingertips. There’s a whole industry built around filesharing, take the 160GB iPod for example, any idea how much it costs to fill that with legally purchased songs?

Computers and the Internet made it easier than ever to reproduce and share files, and it is virtually impossible to stop people from sharing and copying music and videos online. I’m not talking about copying movies for profit here, just for personal use. Besides, sharing files is not as bad as most anti-piracy lobbies want people to believe.

A recent study has shown that people don’t buy less CDs when they download songs, instead, they discover music they otherwise wouldn’t have listened to, and buy more CDs than people who don’t download. On top of this, research continues to show less popular artists actually profit from piracy simply because it allows people to try new music.

From people who missed an episode of their favorite TV-show I often get the question whether it is legal for them to download these off BitTorrent. For them, the only way to see that show is to download it, again, they don’t make any money off it, they just want to see an episode they missed. Is that immoral?

Personally I think it is all about alternatives. Movie, TV and music companies should put their content online and make it available in high quality for a reasonable price without restrictions such as DRM. At the moment there are often no products online that can compete with their pirated counterparts in quality. Sure, there are ways to download (some) music and movies online, but apart from the ridiculous prices, these products are often offered in a low quality format and restricted through DRM.

The thing is, the entertainment industry should learn how to embrace technology and compete with piracy, instead of fighting its customers. The rise of illegal downloading is a signal that customers want something that is not available through other channels, it’s more about availability than the fact that it’s free, as illustrated by the missed TV-show example.

Honestly, the real problem isn’t so much about protecting the rights of the artist, but about protecting the revenue stream for the big media companies. The people who actually create the movies and music want their content to be shared, only the large corporations behind it are too afraid to move on. Lobby groups such as the MPAA and the RIAA represent the distributors of movies and music, NOT the creators. They even pay politicians to support their cause by voting for or against laws so that legislation is made with their interests in mind. Is that moral?

The main reason why these corporations are hesitant to go online is because they are trying to make most of their money of something that can easily done by the public – distribution. They are striving to preserve outdated business models because that’s how they make their money. I’m not proposing that everyone should just pirate everything, but I suggest that the movie and movie industry make their content available online for a reasonable price.

The Internet and filesharing technologies make it possible to make production (of the copies) and distribution costs disappear, yet the prices still don’t change. Why? Because they cling onto their old business models.

So should sharing copyrighted material be legalized? Not per se, but the entertainment industry should focus on monetizing filesharing networks instead of bringing them down. Sharing is a good thing and there are tons of possibilities to profit from it.

What do you think?


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