As a life-long nerd, I’ve followed the development of online piracy and the ensuing industry backlash since the days of Napster (which, I might add, was developed by Shawn Fanning, a high-profile dropout of my alma mater, Northeastern University). The advent of publicly-available, affordable, and easily-accessible broadband internet and the introduction of file-sharing software to the mainstream user have ushered in a new realm of intellectual property challenges. The spectre of widespread online piracy has emerged as a thorn in the side of entertainment and legal entities worldwide.
On the more aggressive end of the prosecution spectrum, you find agencies such as the American Department of Homeland Security’s Intellectual Property Rights Center (DHS IPR) and its long list of partner agencies. [1. http://www.iprcenter.gov/ ] Among the DHS’ most visible ties are those to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is most notorious for its string of hawkish and costly lawsuits throughout the mid-2000s. The series of lawsuits emptied their pockets to the tune of $64,000,000 over a three year period, while only to returning a paltry $1,500,000 in damages ($1.5 for every $64 spent), [2. http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100713/17400810200.shtml] and pursuing legal action against high school cheerleaders (after labelling them ‘vexacious’ after not agreeing to settle for $200 per song). [3. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2008/10/riaa-decries-te] For a comprehensive look at the RIAA’s legal crusade between 2003 and 2008, check out RIAA v. The People: Five Years Later on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website.
Obtuse and heavy-handed copyright enforcement hasn’t been limited to the sue-happy legal culture of America, though. An honorable mention goes out to the German Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs-und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte (GEMA), which takes its duties as seriously as its name scheme would suggest. If you’ve ever lived or travelled in Deutschland, I’m sure you will have been made intimately familiar with the preceding image. They have been accused for single-handedly putting Germany back into the ‘digital dark ages’ by making an obscene proportion of Youtube videos unavailable to the general public. [4. http://www.thelocal.de/sci-tech/20130130-47633.html]
The entertainment faces a significant reshuffling with the dawn of quickly accessible online content. No longer are the industry’s middle men be able to extort exorbitant fees for an obsolete service. Equally, rights-holding companies will be less empowered to use the technical limitations of media ‘artifacts’ (i.e. CDs, DVDs, etc.) to maximise profits and resist technological progress until it is economic convenient. As a result, a series of comically absurd anti-piracy advertisements have been produced, as seen below.
…as well as the Motion Picture Association’s much-lampooned ‘Piracy, It’s a Crime’ campaign.
The notion that motor vehicle theft and downloading unlicensed media exist in the same legal realm is rather absurd. While the circumvention of legal avenues for acquiring media is at best a snub of the social contract and by no means something that should be encouraged or perpetuated, nor is it something that can be effectively advocated on ethical grounds, the knee-jerk reaction that ‘piracy is bad for the entertainment industry’ may not be as cut-and-dry as it initially appears.
Allegations of lost profits made by the various trade associations (and government agencies on their behalf) fail to take into account the reticence of the industry to accept the new order that began with the modern internet. As peer-to-peer networks have demonstrated, there is absolutely no need to provide the consumer with physical media any longer. To claim that this has no impact on the products final cost is rather absurd. I would argue that media is now much more susceptible to legitimate market forces, as consumers are now able to obtain the film or album in an illegal manner with little to no additional effort. Compounding things is the fact that the entertainment industry’s attempt to halt technological progress with the invention of the DVD, it’s not only becoming easier to acquire things illegally, but you’re often left with an equally high-quality piece of media without having to first invest in expensive and superfluous ‘flavor-of-the-month’ hardware with which to play the media. Ironically, those who choose to view the media illegally also avoid the un-fast-forward-able anti-piracy messages that plague the first thirty seconds of DVD offerings.
Unfortunately for the profit margins of the media conglomerates up in arms with the common downloader, there is mounting evidence to suggest that piracy does very little to erode the sales of popular media. The wildly popular HBO-adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series was recently revealed to have made back-to-back claims to the title of most frequently illegally downloaded television series, (even if the most conservative figures are consulted) with about 5.2 million ‘pirates’ compared to 5.5 million network viewers.[5. http://mashable.com/2013/06/24/game-of-thrones-most-pirated/ ] What’s interesting, however, is that Season 2 of the show has thus-far topped Amazon.com’s Best-Sellers list for television shows in 2013. [6. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=RssLanding&cat=news&id=1838005 ]
Other evidence has appeared through events like comedian Louis C.K.’s experimental release of a self-produced release, entitled Live at the Beacon Theater, which was distributed independently via his website in late 2011. In avoiding the traditional channels of diffusion (namely broadcast and physical media), C.K. provided fans with the performance for a fraction of the traditional price. Wrapped up in a few sincere words from the comedian himself that reiterate his belief that a strengthened fan-artist relationship and reasonable pricing scheme deter piracy, the consumer was provided with access to multiple digital downloads and an online streaming version of the performance free of any sort of annoying digital rights management (DRM) schemes for a mere $5. As a result, the comedian accrued over $1,000,000 in sales in only twelve days (of which $280,000,000, arguably a conservative estimation of the amount that would have been claimed by a production company, went to charity) .[7. https://buy.louisck.net/news/another-statement-from-louis-c-k]
What’s the point of all of this? You certainly don’t have to declare yourself a fan of illegal downloading to participate in the ongoing dialogue regarding the evolution of intellectual property, the entertainment industry, and most importantly, the willingness of governments to devote valuable resources to the prosecution of those who choosing to commit illegal acts that have been demonstrated to have little consequence on society at large. It’s at this point that parallels can be drawn to the failed War on Drugs. In the same way that one can support the redirection of government funding and energy away from the futile and destructive battle against illicit drugs without actually supporting their use or taking them personally, it’s possible to speak out against government subservience to legal teams of the entertainment industry and the conscious effort to impede technological progress and the benefit that it brings consumers without actually participating in the activities yourself.
While the moral and ethical arguments against the infringement of intellectual freedom touted by prominent actors such as Kim Dot Com (of Megaupload fame), the Pirate’s Bay trio (Gottfrid Svartholm, Peter Sunde, and Fredrik Neijj) [8. TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, a documentary about the three founders of the Swedish file sharing monolith can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTOKXCEwo_8], and Anonymous can be difficult for the average internet user to identify with, they do not detract from the importance of the larger debate. The recent mass-market appearance of technology like the 3D Printer only increased the stakes of this debate, as the nexus of file-sharing and intellectual property will involve an even more immediate assortment of real-life consequences. The new ground being broken by today’s legal debates has the potential to set a series of precedents for years to come.
How will the issue change when the average citizen can download the plans to ‘print’ an assault rifle? In what ways, legally-speaking, will that data be treated differently from a unpurchased film? While we have the distinct generational privilege of witnessing the debate unfold in front of our eyes, I’m optimistic that our children’s children will be able to watch it online, instead of buying the DVD.