Measures to Prevent Online Piracy Will Be a Fortunate Failure

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Despite the withdrawal of the widely-denounced SOPA and PIPA bills, the war against free p2p sharing of copyrighted content is still being waged.  Last month, the UK high court ruled that five of the countries’ main ISPs block the torrent hosting website The Pirate Bay.

Earlier this year the FBI successfully shut down the widely-used file hosting website Megaupload, taking its founders to court over copyright infringement. In the near future we can also expect the enforcement of the Digital Economy Act, currently undergoing revisions by the European Commission, which will seek to penalise infringing web users by potentially terminating their internet access. Additional web surveillance legislation was announced in the Queens’ recent parliamentary speech, the scope of which will presumably include online pirates.

Ultimately such measures are doomed to failure, simply because technology will always be strides ahead of the law.  Not only did The Pirate Bay receive 12 million extra visitors on the day the blockade was reported (any publicity is good publicity) but methods to surpass the block through proxy servers and VPN providers were widely spread.  Additionally, the rhetoric used to justify these attempts at curbing illegal downloads is thoroughly misguided and out of touch with the habits of modern-day consumers.

The familiar preceding advert which features at the beginning of most DVDs (and which can be avoided through piracy) equates illegal downloads as theft, on par with stealing a car or a handbag. This is an absurd analogy. There is no physical or emotional loss in acquiring a digital file and the owner still retains his rights and ownership of the material.  Whoever downloads their product merely obtains a free copy that by itself is essentially valueless; a replica of a replica.

Claiming that online piracy affects nationwide economies is equally false.  The extra disposable income that would have been spent on additional entertainment is spent elsewhere.  The term ‘piracy’ itself is not an adequate term to describe the act, with its connotations of keelhauling high seas swindlers hardly equitable to a person sat indoors with a computer.

Regardless of such inflammatory language, the principle of exchange-free distribution may still be immoral.  But from a logical perspective, it makes perfect sense.  You can access troves of culture with just one mouse click, including commercially unavailable content, and it can be accessed quickly without leaving the house.  It can all be stored in one place and replayed any time you like.  And aside from the cost of your computer and the internet subscription, it’s free!

But if content is offered at a reasonable and affordable price then piracy need not happen.  The success of the video game download platform Steam in Russia, a country in which bootlegged products are rampant, is evident of this.  But in some respects piracy can benefit artists.  Artists are rarely solely driven by profit, far more important for them is exposure, which the far-reaching scope of the internet has enabled.  

Musicians have the opportunity to tour in parts of the world where previously they would have had no audience. There is no reason to assume that piracy has led to a decline in ticket sales, which is where most musicians’ income originates from anyway. Generally, 13% of record sales go towards those creatively involved (including the producers, managers and lawyers) and in some cases, they receive less than a penny – even from platinum selling albums.  In this model, the main beneficiary is the record label, who as recording engineer Steve Albini recently and rightfully stated: ‘does not operate for the benefit for the musicians or the audience, the only classes of people I care about’.

What the institutions of the media industry fail to realise is that the models on which their industries are based are becoming increasingly redundant in a digital age. The convenience of the internet and digital files means that being overcharged for plastic discs is no longer necessary.  What’s more, “free” downloading isn’t entirely moneyless.  Tier 2 providers receive more cash for every byte downloaded using their service.

File hosting websites such as Rapidshare offer monthly subscriptions for unlimited downloads at faster speeds than free users. This is revenue that could be used to the copyright holder’s advantage, if they were willing to negotiate.

But there are even ways for artists to bypass the age-old structures of the media industry entirely.  I previously mentioned Steam, which has offered games at such cheap prices to the point where piracy isn’t worth the effort.  Platforms like Netflix and Spotify for films and music respectively aren’t exact equivalents, but they too are a step in the right direction.

Recently the comedian Louis C.K. underwent a successful distribution experiment in which he made an entirely new non-copy protected stand-up special available for a $5 download/stream on his website, which earned him over $1 million in just 2 weeks, 28% of which he donated to charity.

This is more money than he would have made if he had released the video via the traditional method, with the additional benefit of it being internationally available instantly and no additional resources used to manufacture and transport discs.  Recording artists have similarly avoided paying distribution and industry fees by making their albums available as pay-as-much-as-you-like downloads.

While most opted to pay nothing for Radiohead’s 2007 In Rainbows, the band members still profited a larger sum than they have from any of their releases distributed ‘conventionally’. Granted, these examples were already established performers, but it appears that people are happy to pay a reasonable price if they feel that their money will primarily support the creators and be put to good use.

Illegal downloading is, in truth, barely an issue.  If a long term solution has to be devised, it is evident that imposing draconian censorship laws will be non-effective in the long run, and that there are other existing models which have proven to provide happier conclusions for both the producer and the consumer.

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