Works for Me!

Boneheaded responses to piracy are getting more subtle but no less boneheaded

It’s not just some internet thing; the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect-IP (SOPA and PIPA) legitimately suck. To the point that it’s almost insulting how transparently bad they are. It’s like if they tried to push through the Patriot Act again, but instead of using the WTC attacks as justification they used torrents of Avatar. This video making the rounds today explains it well enough even for me to understand:

One of the side effects of the attention that SOPA and PIPA have been getting: more outbreaks of discussions about piracy, copyright protection, and intellectual property. Which means more of the same comments that get me all riled up.

For the record, I’m firmly in the Yes, Piracy Is Indeed Theft camp. I’ve heard and considered all the counter-arguments, and haven’t heard any that are convincing:

  • “It’s not theft when there’s no physical copy.” These days, the cost of distribution is almost insignificant when compared to the costs of production.
  • “With digital media, you can make infinite copies.” That’d be great if there were an infinite market of consumers, but in actuality there’s a finite number of people and a finite number of opportunities to make a sale. Most digital media is consumable, so there’s little benefit to ownership, which means once a person has watched/played the torrent of a movie or game, there’s no incentive for them to buy a copy and pay the original creators.
  • “Torrents and free copies act as word of mouth. They promote sales, not hurt them.” You know who really promote sales is marketing and PR firms. And they have the undeniable advantage of doing so with the creator’s consent, instead of assuming “I’ll just put this on YouTube and I’m sure they’ll thank me later.”
  • “Copyright and ‘ownership’ of intellectual property are outdated notions in the internet age.” Unfortunately, buying food and paying rent are still very pressing concerns in the internet age. It’d be nice to still be able to make a living doing what you like instead of having to get a soulless job for any corporation large enough to be able to write off millions of dollars in lost sales.
  • “The people who pirate it wouldn’t have bought it anyway.” There is, literally, no way to prove that. And even if you qualify that with “Most of the people,” that still means the creators and publishers are losing money.
  • “It’s the responsibility of creators, publishers, and distributors to make their offering more appealing than piracy.” And here I thought it was the responsibility of individuals not to steal from people trying to make a living. I’m skeptical that the wide availability of YouTube videos invalidates millennia of philosophy and ethics.

And so on. Piracy is bad, SOPA and PIPA even worse. It’s especially disheartening to see it hit creators who aren’t quite “the little guy,” but are also far from being huge, multi-national media corporations:

The Cinematic Titanic guys are doing exactly what the whole “internet age” is supposed to support: making something on their own, directly targeted at a very niche audience, without (to the best of my knowledge) a huge sponsor or corporate backing. To hear they’re getting “hammered” by piracy (and so are the Rifftrax guys, from what I’ve heard) just makes all the attempts to defend internet piracy seem even more hollow.

But instead of hearing about the creators who actually are affected, it’s a lot more common for us to hear the examples that work, with the spin of “hey this is the new way of doing things, the system works, and people are actually good at heart!” Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and I think Coldplay have put out “pay what you want” albums without DRM. Cory Doctorow’s constantly putting forward his DRM-free books as great examples of how free distribution increases exposure, and Wil Wheaton followed suit with at least two of his own works (maybe more).

And Louis CK sold his concert performance for $5 and made a profit! (That’s the one I would actually support, both because Louis CK’s kind of awesome, and because he’s been transparent and bullshit-free about the entire thing the whole way through. So buy it.)

What they all neglect to mention, though, is that all of them are already famous. Doctorow from a hugely popular zine turned blog turned bully pulpit, and the rest through years of exposure thanks to well-paid marketing juggernauts. It is specious bordering on insulting to claim that any of these artists’ work was successful based solely on the merits of the work itself and the electrifying potential of the try-before-you-buy internet.

It’s important to point out that I’m not saying that any of those are bad works, the success is undeserved, or their fame wasn’t the result of a lot of hard work on their part. I’m simply saying that you can’t build a career from the work of marketing, PR, and promotional people and the publishers who hire them, and then turn around and deny that they exist. It’d also be a mistake to neglect that none of those people are supporting themselves solely on sales of their DRM-free experiments.

There’s also the counterpoint in the form of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which was never a monster hit but did manage to build up a large and faithful audience (myself included), mostly thanks to the quality of the show but also due to the efforts (and investment) of the two networks who aired it and promoted it. The two spin-off groups Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax should in a just universe be famous enough not to have to worry about piracy.

So the latest example of arguments that bug me came today from Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, in a post on Google+ called Before Solving a Problem, Make Sure You’ve Got the Right Problem.

O’Reilly makes what I think are a lot of good points in rejection of SOPA and PIPA, and how it’s fallacious to claim that they’ll in any way benefit job creation or the national economy. But he also says:

In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. There’s no question in my mind that piracy exists, that people around the world are enjoying creative content without paying for it, and even that some criminals are profiting by redistributing it. But is there actual economic harm?

In my experience at O’Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content. Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O’Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others are buying content from us, many of them in countries that we were never able to do business with when our products were not available in digital form.

I see that as just another variant of the claims made by Doctorow, Wheaton, and anyone else diminishing the impact of piracy. They say, in effect, that piracy isn’t a problem because it’s not a problem for them. I don’t for one second believe that they’re lying. I don’t even doubt for a moment that they have the best of intentions.

But I do believe that they’re making a mistake by glossing over what’s unique about their own situations, and assuming that it’s the same for everyone. In O’Reilly’s case, I imagine it’s easier to extol the virtues of the free flow of information when the bulk of your business is selling paperbound reference books at hardback prices. That market has built-in anti-piracy; when you are in the market for a reference book, you want your own copy.

Again, that’s not intended as a slight against O’Reilly books or their publishing practices: the prices are competitive, I’ve bought plenty of their books, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I use computers. I do believe, however, that it’s irresponsible for O’Reilly to be speaking in terms of national policy without considering his special situation. I have to wonder if the publishers of more consumable and disposable media, like paperback fiction, would be as quick to agree that there’s no actual economic harm from piracy.

Suing housewives for hundreds of thousands of dollars for allegedly using a file-sharing service obviously isn’t the solution. Neither is ridiculously restrictive digital rights management. Neither is pro-big-media legislation designed to shift the blame from the actual offenders to the businesses whose only fault or negligence is being visible enough to be sued but not profitable enough to defend themselves.

But taking the Randian “it’s not a problem for me, so it can’t possibly a problem for anyone else” tack isn’t the answer, either.