Friday, 19 February 2010

The Legality Of Filesharing

So today (technically yesterday) there was a debate on Filesharing at the student union. I didn't go to it, primarily because it clashed with CUAMS, but I don't think I'd have gone anyway because I usually find that most people who debate on filesharing have views I find utterly retarded.

The fact is that most people who enter these sorts of debates seem to either hold the opinion that filesharing is utterly wrong and illegal (it's STEALING guys), and that everyone who does it should be reprimanded for it, or they hold the opinion that it's our moral right to be able to get music for free, and that really in doing it we're helping liberate the world of oppression.

To counter the first argument first, the fact is that filesharing is already far too easy and widespread. It's like gun ownership in the US - sure people can see it's wrong, but what the fuck are you going to do to remove it? Fact is that a huge proportion of people aged 14-25 will have broken copyright law at some point, either knowingly (torrents, etc) or unknowingly (YouTube, blog downloads, etc). You can't catch all those people, and even if you did, fining or handing out prison sentences or community service to such a huge number of people would be absolutely insane. Making filesharing more illegal isn't actually going to help stuff that much, because it's already far too fucking easy.

I'm going to write more on why I think the other side of the coin is wrong, because I think it's how people expect me to think, and I know quite a few people who think this way. Fact is guys, you can't glorify filesharing, and you can't justify it. Try all you fucking want, but legalising filesharing would do far more harm than good when you consider the bigger picture.

The first port of call in the defence of filesharing is that it usually doesn't amount to lost sales. This is a bit of a dumb argument in two ways:

Firstly, it's fucking impossible to prove whether you ever would have genuinely bought the album or not if you couldn't have downloaded it for free. You can protest that you'd have never spent the money all you want, but definitely wouldn't get anywhere in, say, a court of law. I don't think you even know yourself well enough to say whether you'd have paid for it or not if all filesharing didn't exist.

Secondly, it doesn't scale. While I'm sure a large proportion of illegal downloads are maybe not lost sales, I'm equally sure that some of them are. Even within the current filesharing community, I think the number of lost sales due to filesharing is significant, and that it must represent a fair chunk of revenue lost for the industry, regardless of whether it's quite as high as they'd claim it to be. The other thing to consider is the number of people who would download it for free instead of buying it, if it weren't for the fact that downloading it for free was illegal. I know plenty of people who don't torrent stuff on the basis that it's illegal and they're scared of potentially being caught for it, but almost certainly would if that danger was taken away. It's tenuous to suggest that the current number of lost sales due to illegal downloading is not worth a lot of money, and it's utterly wrong to suggest that it wouldn't be a huge amount of money if illegal downloading was no longer illegal.

I can't see any sort of legalisation of filesharing not massively harming the music and film industries. If you suddenly remove the concept of equivalent trade, that we should pay for something that we receive and which someone else has created, then I think the industries will struggle to even exist. Sure, people are still going to write songs and make music because they want to, but at the same time, how are they going to live? Would any of the current bands of today be writing as good music as they do if they had to have jobs? Sure, big bands can make a massive amount of money from touring and the like, but for small bands tours tend to cost more than they make back. I feel the amount of good music that we'd lose would be substantial.

The TV and film industries would be hit even harder. Sure, people are always going to pay to go to the cinema, and TV companies will always make money through advertising, but DVD/Blu-Ray sales would disappear. The industries would suddenly be far less profitable, and I think production standards would drop to save costs, as well as some fantastic shows never being made at all due to lack of investment. It should be noted that Family Guy was only un-cancelled on the back of strong DVD sales. Sales which wouldn't have existed if filesharing was legal.

It costs nobody anything for me to make a digital copy of something, but that's still neglecting the money and effort that went into creating it in the first place. The industries aren't robust enough to not drop substantially if suddenly there's no obvious way of recouping that initial investment. Films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which had huge production budgets, would be far less likely to be made, and would probably not be as good if they were, if it wasn't for DVD sales being around to add a fair bit of cash flow. Decent screenrips would probably exist if it wasn't illegal to film inside cinemas as well.

The guy behind The Pirate Bay is currently launching some scheme called Flattr, where you basically have a subscription that goes to support the people whose stuff you illegally download. It's a nice idea in concept, but the main issue with it is that it's still not going to see that much money passing through. As humans we are selfish. We don't always follow the finer points of game theory and we can't be relied on to choose something that doesn't entirely benefit ourselves. Flattr would work really well as a future of filesharing if everyone used it and everyone paid lots of money, but I can't see that happening. People would have to do something that's relatively bad for them but is for the greater good, and in reality that's not how things work. Flattr is like communism - a great idea providing you can rely on human beings to not be selfish. Which you can't, because we are.

The fact is that if filesharing was legal I'd be quite happy to pay £10 a month to support the bands and film makers that I like. But that makes fuck all difference unless everyone also thinks the same way, and I don't think people would. If the majority of people don't pay into the system then my £10 is basically just pissing into the wind. Legalising filesharing on the assumption that people will still pay fair prices for stuff is being massively na├»ve about how human beings think, because the majority of people are not going to choose to pay for something they can get with no trouble for free.

The final argument for filesharing is something along the lines of copyright being invasive of our rights as people. That once something is converted into a digital string of 0's and 1's then we should be able to copy it to our heart's content, and copyright laws are restrictive and evil. They give the large media corporations control over us by forcing us to pay them for services, and they allow people to control people's access to information and data. Now, I sort of see where this argument is coming from, and I wouldn't even say it was necessarily wrong, I just don't see why it's an argument. If artists and music/film corporations are gaining some sort of control over me by producing stuff that I like, then I don't quite see why I should be upset about that.

Take the legal system for example. I'm losing a crapload of freedom due to the presence of laws and people who enforce them. There's a ton of stuff I can't do as a result of it all. But would I trade it all in for those freedoms? Absolutely not. There are freedoms that I never feel I need, and I'm quite happy to relinquish them for what I get in return. The same applies with copyright and music. I wouldn't take a world where filesharing was legal, but the quantity and quality of music and film were diminished.

So where do I lie then, if I think that the world shouldn't crack down on filesharing, but also that filesharing shouldn't be made legal? The answer would be a compromise; I lie somewhere in between the two. I think services like Spotify are starting to show us how it should be done. You need to provide a service that is both low-cost or free to the end user, but still generates revenue for the companies involved.

For example, if there were just a few filesharing networks out there which required a subscription, but also voided any sort of legal implications of what you were doing on there, then I think it could work. The subscription money would pay off artists and companies, and the law would be hardened on people who downloaded illegally from sites which weren't in this subscription system. It seems one of the few feasible ideas that have been put forward.

I don't like these filesharing debates, and I particularly don't like people who try and glorify filesharing or claim it isn't immoral, because they don't help anything. They're not moving us forward because there's not enough compromise being sought. The current direction we're heading as a society is towards filesharing eventually becoming too much of a risk for people to do it. That basically the legal ramifications are so harsh, and it's so easy to be caught doing it, that nobody bothers any more. Which sucks for the filesharers, and is also going to cost a small fucking fortune for the media companies and legal systems to put in and enforce. Compromises such as Spotify are far better all round, but they almost never tend to come out of these sorts of shitty debates over filesharing.

The question should not be whether filesharing should be made legal or not, or whether it's morally wrong or not. The real question we should be asking is how we can use the methods of filesharing to better society, and we should be looking for the answers that provide overall benefit. It's just that more people need to see that the debate is far from black and white, and that the best end result is almost certainly going to be some shade of grey.

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