To Share or Not to Share

Last week, a report emerged from the London School of Economics claiming that piracy is not harming the entertainment industries.  One of my new Twitter pals, Jean-Phlippe Vergne (@pirateorg) sent me a link to the report calling it “scientific” rather than based on “moral claims.”  I read the report, and there’s nothing scientific about it, particularly in that it lacks any statement of methodology (science likes methodology). Like other “studies” of its kind, this one begs the reader to make a very broad and unscientific leap to the conclusion that because gross sales of movies and music went up over a given period of time, we must therefore conclude that piracy is not having any ill effects on those industries.

Never mind that the report appears to double-count music revenues or that measurements like “box office sales” alone do not paint a complete picture of the economic health of the filmed-entertainment industry, but such measurements say nothing at all about the effects of piracy.  It’s a bit like saying America has more millionaires than ever before, so the economy overall must be very strong.  The lack of rigor in the report may be attributable to the fact that its authors are not economists despite the imprimatur of the LSE, but this didn’t stop the pro-piracy crowd from making hay out of headlines like London School of Economics Says Piracy Does No Harm.  After all, nobody’s going to read the report except those of us who play inside baseball.

Regardless, the report itself has already been criticized,  but I want to go back to this refrain my new friend, Mr. Vergne has played, which is the chronic implication that the subject of piracy should not be examined in a moral context.  Why not?  I suspect because it’s inconvenient to go there because even the pro-piracy crowd reveals the subject to entail a moral choice by repeating their favorite chant, “Copying isn’t theft.”  One has to buy that premise unequivocally in order to to believe that piracy is amoral, but does anyone other than a tiny group of soon-to-be-finding-a-new-hobby zealots really accept this premise as absolute?  I don’t think so.

Of the hundreds of millions of users of pirate sites, it is a comparatively small population, who actually copy files and upload them to these sites.  I have several younger friends who have downloaded music and films from torrents and the like,  but these same people would probably not go the next step and physically rip files from a disk to upload to a site, let alone take money for having ones and zeroes on their hands.  Subtle though it may be, I bet even that is a moral step too far for a lot of people, even though they realize that as viewers, they’re benefitting from the fact that someone else has crossed a threshold they wouldn’t.  This is common enough behavior.  Smoking dope is one choice, dealing it is another.

Most of us draw and redraw moral boundary lines while making dozens of choices a day.  We typically break laws in small and presumably harmless ways, but usually within some sort of self-imposed boundary unless we are irredeemably narcissistic.  For instance, I’m betting most of us would agree that speeding on an open highway with few other vehicles around is a choice that is morally superior to speeding on a city freeway. And the uniformity of the law or possible punishment has no bearing on the moral decision in this case. We make these choices and judgment calls all the time, and I don’t think making bad choices necessarily implies corruption.  Corruption begins when we permit ourselves to stop asking the the question, to assume there are no boundaries; and with regard to piracy, this is exactly what its proponents try to do — to give particularly young and inherently narcissistic people permission to stop asking the question.

But what boundaries might exist when it comes to this activity many of us call theft and others would like to call sharing?  By way of example, I recently committed a low-volume act of copyright infringement against one of my favorite musicians, Mr. Leo Kottke (sorry Leo).  My new production assistant is also a guitarist and a singer/songwriter, and while traveling on a recent shoot, I asked her if she knew Kottke’s music because I happened to have his first album loaded in the CD player.  She hadn’t heard Kottke, but she liked it a lot, so I told her to borrow the CD and copy the files onto her Mac.  Her slightly astonished look was more sincere than mocking, knowing that I write this blog and firmly support copyright.  What gives?

Good question.  It’s an argument that’s been made — that “file sharing” sites are just a contemporary and technologically inevitable extension of what pre-digital people like me have always done with media when we share with one another.  But is it the same thing?  What makes the difference?  Is it volume?  Is it about the technologies used?  Is it about presentation or delivery mechanisms? Or is it simply that I in no way profit financially from this exchange with my assistant?  Would Leo Kottke be mad at me?  Maybe, but I don’t think artists have ever cared much about this kind of one-to-one exchange. Plus, I can accurately state that my success rate in terms of fans made in this case as 100% fans for all recipients of the free media. But maybe that’s an excuse.   If I want to be altruistic about it, maybe I should send Leo $12.26 with an explanation that it’s the current Amazon price for one extra copy of his 1969 album “6-and-12-String Guitar.”  Wouldn’t he be surprised?

My choice to “share” in this instance is bound by certain conditions that, absent the larger debate about piracy, I doubt I would examine consciously.  Nevertheless, the first condition is that I would never think of the word sharing to describe an exchange that does not involve transmission of media to an actual person I know.  Absent the connection made, the rapport built, the camaraderie fostered by introducing someone to a particular work based on some quality I recognize in the individual, the exchange would be meaningless and empty.   As such, I find the conceit of piracy’s defenders who call that activity “sharing” to be a devaluation of human interaction in the same way mass IP theft itself is a devaluation of the human labor that produced the work in the first place.  Does anyone rationally believe they can “share” anything with several hundred million complete strangers?

A component of this condition that I share with an actual person is that I have a measure of trust in that individual — that she isn’t going to do something irresponsible with the files, but almost more importantly that she’s accepting the gift because she actually gets something out of the music.  We’ve seen evidence that the free media bonanza has led to a kind of habitual gluttony among younger users who may have thousands of songs on their iPods but have little to no relationship with much of the music they’ve collected. This phenomenon was in part highlighted when David Lowery wrote his famous letter to NPR intern Emily White after she boasted that she had 11,000 songs but only paid for 15 CDs in her life.

Another component of sharing only with a known person is of course a matter of scale.  After owning Kottke’s album for two or three decades, I personally increased the number of individuals with bootleg copies by one.  By contrast, were I to upload those same files one time to a pirate site, I’ve made the album available to roughly 2.5 billion people, which is to say the entire Internet-connected world.  It’s frankly shocking that any of the debate about piracy continues to get bogged down in comparing a 1:1 exchange with a 1:2.5 billion exchange, but I assume that’s why folks like Mr. Vergne prefer semantic games and a pretense of socially progressive philosophy (i.e. bullshit) over anything so clear-cut as numbers.

And scale aside, giving the Kottke files to my assistant remains within another boundary  in that I did not serve up this artist whose work I love to be exploited for profit by the owners of pirate sites. It doesn’t matter that Kottke’s music would be downloaded substantially less than, say, Lady Gaga.  It wouldn’t even matter if Kottke’s files were never accessed via pirate site simply because his fan base likely skews toward a demographic that doesn’t generally use these sites.  What matters is a gut instinct that if I could ask Leo Kottke his feelings on the matter, I’m guessing he’d be cool with the exchange with my assistant but would be insulted and furious at my uploading his work to the entire world so some parasitic individuals can profit from its trade.  And in this simple, old-school exercise of putting oneself in another’s shoes, the moral choice is clear.

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