Recently I found myself discussing illegal file-sharing opposite a spokesman for anti-piracy lobbying group FACT, the UK equivalent to Australia’s own AFACT. The discussion was civil enough, but I think it’s fair to say we didn’t exactly reach a cordial agreement. Indeed, I don’t believe that organisation and I will ever see eye to eye.
It isn’t that I don’t sympathise with FACT’s position. Legally speaking, the media companies it represents are on the receiving end of an unprecedented global larceny. You can hardly expect them to lie down and take it.
However, my sympathy evaporates when copyright lobbyists misrepresent the situation, as with the notorious “you wouldn’t steal a car” adverts. A child could tell you that, whatever the negative effects of file-sharing may be, there’s a difference between hot-wiring a car and LimeWiring Cars. It’s an insult to the intelligence, just like the name of the organisation – the Federation Against Copyright Theft – which non-sensically crashes together two unrelated legal terms.
In reality, file-sharing is a much more interesting issue than straightforward theft. When a file is shared, nothing tangible is taken away from anyone. The loss, rather, is of potential future revenues. That isn’t the interesting bit: even FACT and AFACT acknowledges this. The interesting bit comes next. Historically, those potential revenues have depended on copyright. After all, you wouldn’t make much money from your latest album if a store could buy one copy then legally sell duplicates for the price of a blank CD.
But unlike regular property laws, copyright isn’t a necessary foundation of society – it’s simply a tool for encouraging creators to produce content, not as a good in itself, but for the benefit of the general public. That’s made explicit in the original statutes in some countries: in the USA, the law enshrines copyright in order “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”.
Once we recognise that the principal purpose of copyright is to benefit the public at large – rather than to service some sort of ethical debt to artists – the whole complexion of the problem changes. It becomes possible to acknowledge that having the greatest media library in history freely available at the press of a button isn’t a social disaster, but a wondrous thing – arguably, the crowning cultural achievement of technology. To be sure, it conflicts with our existing ideas of copyright – but the law is our servant, not our master. If we don’t adapt and rebalance it to make the best of changing circumstances then we’re cheating ourselves.
The debate is academic anyway. Regardless of what the law says, mass file-sharing is the reality. Legal sanction clearly hasn’t slowed it down, and although technical measures could perhaps put the brakes on, hackers are always finding new ways to encrypt and tunnel data. Short of a major shake-up in the way we use the internet, file-sharing is simply something the industry must learn to live with. And why shouldn’t it? Creatives have benefited enormously from technological advances in the past few decades. Audio, video and print production can now be carried out in a fraction of the time they once took, and at a fraction of the cost. Music and film publishers haven’t done too badly at getting us to buy the same content over and over again in different formats. Let them take the rough with the smooth.
Indeed, it’s in their interests to grasp the nettle sooner rather than later. If you think downloading movies challenges established business models, wait until so-called 3D printers take off and it becomes possible to download blueprints and “pirate” physical objects; the genie will really be out of the bottle then. One way or another, media producers must learn to survive without the certainty of statutory copyright. Belatedly, that is what they’re doing. Services such as iTunes and catch up TV don’t compete with the “everything at your fingertips” appeal of file-sharing, but embrace it. They make much illegal file-sharing redundant and they’re popular because they’re built on proven technologies and proven delivery models – proven, that is, by file-sharers.
That brings me to my real problem with organisations like FACT: they’re stuck in the past. Their response to the challenges of new technology seems to be for people to carry on buying CDs and cinema tickets as if nothing has changed. Yet, even the content providers they represent recognise that it’s the file-sharers who are leading the way. If you listen to them, you might believe that piracy is killing creativity, but when it comes to realising the cultural potential of the internet, so far it’s the pirates who have been the creative ones.