Driving down civilization road, it takes effort to grapple with the ramifications of our choices along the way. Out of basic self-interest, we often ignore our own effects upon the world. You throw your rubbish out the window as you drive on by, thinking "I’m just one person, so why worry?"
Such was my mentality as a college student during what we might call the Napster Boom, where suddenly, recorded music was digitized and transformed into free content via one “file-sharing” service after another. And yes, those are ironic quotation marks. Because describing exploitative digital piracy sites as though they are benign swap-shops where one can "share" "files" is just one of the many kinds of bollocks that pepper this debate.
But I’ll admit that back then, I willingly took part in this free-for-all, as I’m sure many of you did and probably still do, for films, software, games, and ebooks. Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realized that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was—a lowly part-time barista living in a shoddy NY rental.
I was troubled by the knowledge that millions of music fans were freeloading music from these artists without a second thought, and more so that I was one of them, hypocritically claiming to “love” music all the while. Once I realized that the great majority of artists and musicians actually needed their legal rights enforced under copyright just to have the chance to break even, the usual excuses for digital piracy started to look like sophomoric drivel.
It’s true that some of the classic excuses for piracy had their brief moments of seeming credibility. In 2000, when the debate over digital piracy sprung to life, we didn’t have content providers like Spotify or Netflix, much less iTunes. The fact that there were so few legal options for consuming digital content was one of the main rationalizations for taking a soft stance toward piracy. The legitimate digital market was either too inconvenient or nonexistent, and piracy filled in these gaps in the developing web.
But as time went on, the arguments for allowing mass distribution of unlicensed content, offered by activists and bloggers like Cory Doctorow and Mike Masnick, took on some familiarities of the Iraq War. First we were there for WMDs, and then it was to spread democracy, and then it was to simply to honor the soldiers who had fought and died there, before we finally got the hell out.
Similarly, when iTunes and other services for legally purchasing content came to market, dulling the availability argument, apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalisation after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want”; that identifying digital black market sites like Megaupload and cutting them off from search results and millions in illicit advertising revenues was an attack on free speech (owner Kim Dotcom even compared his legal plight to the struggles faced by Martin Luther King Jr).
Any desperate excuse was good enough, so long as it justified the original campaign. Otherwise, the people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness,” but for aggression, entitlement, and selfishness masked by superficial delusions of grandeur.
When made today, the argument that availability is the problem is even more boneheaded. Legal, reasonably priced options for digital content are spreading throughout the globe. Arguably there is also whole new generation of consumers out there who, although they might once have believed the drivel about piracy being OK, have now, like me, realized it is nothing more than stealing. Some of those people have even started bands of their own and had the epiphany about artists’ rights first-hand.
And yet, depressingly, digital piracy continues to grow. A study by NetNames examined the popularity of infringing content in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific regions in January 2013. They found 327 million unique users in these regions seeking infringing content, which represented 25 percent of all internet users, with over 23 percent of total bandwidth devoted to infringing content. They found that absolute infringing bandwidth increased by 160 per cent from 2010 to 2012 and the absolute number of users seeking infringing content increased by 10 percent from 2011 to 2013. More recently, GigaOm reported on an analysis by the “media intelligence startup” TruOptic, which found over 300 million users using BitTorrent alone to download free content each month. Most downloads were coming from developed nations with legal options, like the UK, US, and Australia.
So why does freeloading remain so popular?
For one, people are habituated. I was at a party in Manhattan last month when the fact that I hadn’t seen Wayne’s World prompted an attempted intervention. One of the people in attendance, a lawyer who didn’t seem especially hurting for cash, helpfully suggested "seriously man, just like, torrent it when you get home tonight."
Also, freeloading is easy as hell. I was checking the release date of an album recently, and when I entered its name as a Bing search query, “torrent” popped up after it thanks to autocomplete. Out of curiosity, I clicked through to find a full page of search results for advertising-laced pirate sites that all pointed me to my free unlicensed copy.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves (whilst meanwhile receiving millions in investment and employing copyright protections when it suited them). A report by the Digital Citizens Alliance released earlier this year found that pirate sites took in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in revenues in 2013, with the largest 30 sites averaging $4.4 million in ad revenues and even the smallest sites pulling in $100,000 annually, all on the backs of uncompensated artists. As these sites need not bother with licensing fees, their profit margins are estimated to range between 80 and 94 per cent.
Piracy may feel like victimless “free culture” to the user, but they are in fact participating in a digital black market. It’s not about information wanting to be free, but rather it’s about exploitative black marketeers and willfully blind tech companies wanting to get rich. They are simply capitalizing on loopholes in the regulatory framework. In this sense, mass digital piracy is a symptom of underdevelopment. It’s the Internet Third World, with outdoor markets hawking counterfeit goods and purveyors bribing the local cops to look the other way.
Tech companies will go on skimming profits off the top of this black market until enlightened governments cooperate to squeeze out these illicit profiteers in an effective and transparent manner. As Google’s own Chief Economist Hal Varian has written, "all that is required is the political will to enforce intellectual property rights."
The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient, if the internet took a leap in “development?" Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? Perhaps American culture wouldn’t be quite as dominant globally, with local creative industries having a better shot at investment and growth to better compete with American film and music? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.
It’s only common sense that the devaluation creative industries face is having a sustained negative effect on the investment available for sustainable artistic careers. Through new groups like the Content Creators Coalition, artists have begun to advocate for themselves. But forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.
Especially those, like me, for whom digital freeloading was commonplace, but can now admit that we are all entitled to fair compensation for our work. No one is entitled to nonconsensual "free" labor from artists, or anyone else for that matter. This should not be a controversial proclamation in 2014. The fact that it is greeted with self-righteous indignation from Silicon Valley’s true believers indicates a retrograde, sociopathic mindset that masks itself in self-serving rhetoric of “innovation” and “disruption.” Punching someone in the face and breaking their nose is also “disruptive” and “innovative,” but probably not something we want to incentivize and scale.
Take away the digital black market and, yes, prices for creative work will likely inch up for consumers (especially for those who are used to paying zero). But, just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it “the price we pay for civilization”—a civilization we hold the collective keys to.
This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.
Chris Ruen is the author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Appetite for Free Content is Starving Creativity.