The positives of piracy

July 24, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments

Since Culture Secretary Andy Burnham was thinking about cracking-down on illegal file-sharing with legislation, today’s statement by the major internet service providers (ISP) could’ve been worse. Whilst the idea of ‘cease & desist’ letters to internet users is certainly intrusive, their promise not to ‘spy’ on their customers suggests they’re more concerned with being seen to be cracking-down rather than trying to eradicate all illegal downloading. It’s easy enough for an ISP to detect the use of a file-sharing client like BitTorrent or Limewire and then send some strongly-worded tut-tutting, but to completely stop downloading would’ve meant detecting all the ways users exchange music outside of peer-to-peer networks. To do this, they’d certainly have to spy on their customers’ browsing habits at a cost they won’t wish to incur.

So nothing much has changed; you can still download music illegally and with impunity, just so long as you don’t use a file-sharing client to do it. Regardless of your feelings about those who do the downloading, I think it’s important that we still have an online black market for two reasons. First, the method of legally-purchasing music is flawed and in a state of flux. When you shop at iTunes, most of the music is shackled by the widely-loathed Digital Rights Management, which places heavy restrictions on how and where you play your music and essentially devalues any music you buy. The sound quality of an iTunes track is also pretty poor. Search around for an illegal version, and you’re likely to happen-upon files that aren’t restricted by DRM, have superior sound quality and don’t cost you anything. Customers still aren’t getting the service they require, and I like that a black market exists to force them to raise their standards.

Secondly, copyright law in both Britain & the United States is stuffy and out-of-date when applied to digital media, as the celebrated academic Lawrence Lessig explains:

Think about your kids. After they get bored downloading all the music they can find, they’re going to discover the power – practically bundled into the machine if it’s a Mac – to remix the culture they’ve collected. They could add a bass track to a violin concerto. They could make a home movie and sync Tom Petty to the images. They could splice together a politician’s speeches to prove she’s a waffler. These activities will become second nature to the iGeneration and could well represent the next great digital revolution – exploding demand for machines, bandwidth, and software.

Yet these ordinary uses of these extraordinary technologies are all presumptively illegal today. Digital devices copy to create; to copy copyrighted content requires permission from its owner. And while the tradition of fair use with text is fairly mature, that tradition is much weaker with film, photographs, and sound.

By allowing record companies, online suppliers and antiquated copyright law to impose the rules on how we receive digital media, they also impose the rules on how we use it. For a technological revolution that was supposed to democratise media so that ordinary people could be the creators, the current situation  really does sell us short. The ability to share media freely, however morally-dubious it might be, shows that the internet is not yet controlled by the conglomerates, and that gives the rest of us more creative freedom than they’re currently willing to allow.



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  1. I maintain that the real reason they pursue this is not loss of income, media profits continue to rise, but control of access. When money isn’t the issue, it tends to be power.

  2. Yeah, I reckon there’s some truth to that. One of the recurring nightmares I have about an internet regulated entirely by the music industry is that it’d make the use of music more restricted & heavily-checked than at any other time in history. Considering the democratic potential of this medium, that’d just be unbelievably depressing.

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