To pirate or not to pirate: Convenience vs compensation in the Internet age

Here are two articles that expressly discuss pirated music, but a lot of the same issues of morality and artist compensation apply to any pirated media—movies, games, and, yes, e-books. They make an interesting presentation of two sides of the piracy argument: what can be done to get artists paid for their music?

On one side is 21-year-old NPR All Songs Considered intern Emily White, who penned a piece at the NPR website discussing how she’d accumulated her 11,000 song music collection largely by copying CDs from the radio station she ran, mix tapes from friends, and so on. She writes:

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.

And adds that she would be willing to pay a subscription fee for a Spotify-style universal database of music to which she could listen at any time, anywhere, with play-count-based compensation so artists played more got paid more.

Then on the other side is 51-year-old music industry veteran, teacher, and trained mathematician David C. Lowery, formerly of music acts Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Lowery responds with an open letter several times longer than White’s piece, in which he discusses the ethical issues inherent in the younger generation’s approach to acquiring music.

Lowery writes that the oft-cited “record labels screw the artists anyway” defense is not actually true, and the majority of artists have fair and equitable deals with their recording studios (or even own their own independent labels themselves). He also writes that more and more artists are finding themselves unable to make a living, and cites the cases of a couple artists he knew who committed suicide in abject poverty.

Now, having said all that, I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.

He goes on to accuse the Free Culture movement (and specifically, via a financial document link, the Creative Commons Foundation) of being effectively an astroturf cat’s paw of “a handful of large tech corporations and their foundations” who want to earn money through enabling the illicit distribution of content.

Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and  so on.

I’m sure that’s news to Lawrence Lessig and the other people who simply feel artists should have the ability to forego specific copyright protections on their own works, and an easy way to codify exactly which protections they wish to forego. And speaking of free culture in general, I expect such claims would also surprise Richard Stallman, rabid free-IP advocate who is about as anti-corporation as you can get.

Lowery also compares prices for the computer equipment and services necessary to download songs cost, or the cost of tuition, or car insurance, and compares these to the $2,139.50 value he placed on the 11,000 songs White copied. “Why do you pay real money for this other stuff but not music?”

In paying big corporations for network services and computer equipment, but not paying for the songs they consume, Lowery writes:

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

And Lowery also addresses White’s statement I quoted above, about saying she’ll pay for “convenience” but not albums,, by asking what’s so inconvenient about iTunes, or services like iTunes Match or Pandora Premium, apart from having to pay for them. He closes by suggesting that people should seek out pirated music by their favorite artists and complain to the pirate sites’ advertisers. He also suggests that Ms. White should donate some money to charities in support of music artists and their causes in lieu of paying back the artists of those 11,000 songs she copied.

Lowery makes some convincing arguments in his letter—especially when it comes to the convenience of iTunes and other such services. I’m in the process of uploading my own music library to Amazon’s cloud storage right now, and I don’t see any problem paying $20 a year for the ability to stream my own music. But Lowery’s presentation is marred by some of his other claims. This is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen it suggested that the Free Culture harbors a secret corporate agenda! This whole “conspiracy theory” thing makes it a little hard to take him seriously.

I’m also kind of wondering what possessed Emily White to be so forthright about her method of music acquisition. It made for an interesting article, but I tend to agree with Lowery that her attitude is probably going to make it harder for her to find a job in the music industry. “Oh, you’re the one who wrote that article on NPR saying you pirated 11,000 songs?”

As I said at the top, the essential arguments also apply to other pirated media, though perhaps a little less so to e-books. It’s not quite as easy to “rip” some else’s paper books, after all, and the convenience of buying them online rather than trying to hunt down pirated versions makes paying for them a lot more attractive. Still, there’s a lot of the same sort of entitlement going on across all digital media, with people feeling justified in downloading illicitly because they can.

In the face of that, I don’t know how realistic Lowery’s “Stop that right now, you naughty children” approach is. Maybe it will change a few minds, but as addicted as today’s youth is to illicit content, it’ll take a lot more than telling people don’t do that to turn the tide. It may not even be a matter of refusing to “change our morality and principles to fit the technological change” anymore—that ship may already have sailed, as it looks like the morality and principles of a whole generation are pretty much set and hardened.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that, “If this keeps up, someday there won’t be any artists left.” Many artists (such as the authors of the fanfic and Internet fiction I mentioned earlier today) work for reasons other than money to begin with. But if this does keep up, the number of artists who can work for pay will definitely decline, and the quality and type of art and literature we see may shift dramatically. I wonder what the world will look like if that happens?

My suspicion is that people will come up with payment models that work in the new Internet era. Perhaps it will be the artists themselves who do it, given that they’re the ones with the biggest incentive to see that artists get paid, and necessity is the mother of invention. A lot of Kickstarter projects have been rather successful in that regard lately; Seth Godin has already tallied more than many published authors make on several books in donations on his Kickstarter, with still most of a month to gather even more momentum. Maybe it will be that, or maybe it will be something else. But if there’s a vacuum in the market, where people who do have money are willing to pay for art, the market will probably figure out how to connect them to artists in a meaningful way.

Update: Mike Masnick on Techdirt says much the same thing as I did above, accusing Lowery of “want[ing] a pony” that he won’t be able to have, and saying that even the file sharing Lowery decries is on its way out, replaced by free or paid streaming services like Pandora or Spotify (which recently released a free service to compete with Pandora, by the way). As for Lowery’s claim that streaming services offer low payouts, Masnick calls it a “mirage” and points to a post from the TuneCore blog that runs the numbers and estimates streaming could have brought in over $50 billion in 2011. “The innovator’s dilemma teaches us that the old guard always mocks the new players for being too small or not paying enough,” Masnick writes. “But they miss the trendlines for the snapshot. And when the trendlines converge, they get run over. “

7 Comments on To pirate or not to pirate: Convenience vs compensation in the Internet age

  1. “But if this does keep up, the number of artists who can work for pay will definitely decline, and the quality and type of art and literature we see may shift dramatically.”

    But we already have far more books than we can read, far more movies than we can watch and far more music than we can listen to in a lifetime. What does it matter if the quality or amount of new stuff drops, even to zero, once we have unlimited access to the old stuff?

    Isn’t it like saying: ‘Hey, the quality of the new oxygen we manufacture will go down if we don’t limit people’s access to free oxygen?’ What’s more important — providing free access or artificially propping up prices by limiting supply?

  2. “…the convenience of buying them online rather than trying to hunt down pirated versions makes paying for them a lot more attractive.”

    Unless your IP address doesn’t come up as being in the US, in which case “hunting down pirated versions” is significantly more convenient than paying for them. I’d take the bleating about “teh eeeebul piratezez” a lot more seriously if it weren’t coming from people who refuse to allow me to buy their books…

  3. Stealing is stealing. I see many otherwise “honest” youth who think nothing of obtaining pirated software or music for free. The argument that “it isn’t worth paying for” is absurd. If I don’t think a Ferrari is worth $150,000, I just don’t buy it, or I choose to do without, I don’t steal one. I have outwardly “religious” members of my estranged family who have more pirated music than they can ever listen to, and who think nothing of stealing more and more.

    So the real question is how to stop it. We can’t afford to prosecute people for a few hundred dollars worth of loot. Where did the moral fiber of our youth go, what happened to the parental oversight? Where do we get the sense of self-entitlement that we see all the way from a school kid stealing music to the CEOs that run our corporations and our government? And how do you stop a child from stealing music behind your back when “everyone else is doing it and has more music than I do?”

  4. Both of these points of view are utter nonsense and contribute nothing to the real world of music, media and piracy. They represent the two polar opposites of the spectrum and don’t represent any viewpoint worth listening to.
    I don’t accept that White’s actions represent the vast majority of young people’s actions and I don’t accept Lowery’s moral analysis or perennial claim that piracy will lead to a catastrophic decline in new music.
    Lowery: “He also writes that more and more artists are finding themselves unable to make a living, and cites the cases of a couple artists he knew who committed suicide in abject poverty.” I don’t believe this drivel for one moment. Artists have no inherent right to earn a living and the real truth is too many of them are devoid of actual talent and deserve their fate. Talented musicians are more successful than ever before. The music industry is booming. The actual level of piracy is a tiny minuscule fraction of what the media industry claims and reliable independent research has shown many times that piracy more often than not helps musicians sell more.
    Reliable research has also consistently shown that downloaders are bigger spenders on music. My own life experience is that young people who download also spend more on their music. The portrayal of young people as nothing but vacuums for free music is a tired old lie that has been spread about by the media industry and no one with a brain can really believe it any more.
    We are living in a new world and people like Lowery who have such trouble adapting their black and white sense of morality, have nothing to contribute to the debate imho. It is a nonsense for him to imagine that he can persuade my nephew that downloading Abbey Road is stealing from anyone least of all Paul McCartney, who has more than enough money already, or the Music industry who have already earned more than enough from his music.

  5. Howard makes my point. Somehow, by changing decades, we alter basic moral, ethical standards to fit our desires, and rationalize theft by saying the artists have enough money already – as though that is our decision to make. Theft is theft. It is defined loosely as taking something that doesn’t belong to you without the owner’s permission and depriving the owner of just value or compensation for his/her artistic talents and expertise. Somehow, we change the definition of digital media to vary from that of “real” physical property. It is that mindset that has permeated our youth, not all of them to be sure, but enough of them that the question is how to deal with it. Ignoring it is not a solution. This is not a “new world” in which we can simply take what we want anytime we can get away with not paying for it. There is no difference between the physical polycarbonate CD with digital information, and the exact same content stolen through a wire. No wonder we’re in a mess.

  6. Binko Barnes // June 20, 2012 at 10:33 pm //

    For the millionth time, copyright infringement is not “theft’. Period. I know that it suits your emotional needs to redefine copyright infringement as “theft” so you can demonize it. Too bad.

    Capturing a digital copy of electronic bits that float through the internet does not deprive anybody of anything. It simply infringes their legally granted monopoly over copies.

    Copyright is not an inalienable self-evident right of man. It is a monopoly granted by government because it is seen to serve a good. Copyright is supposed to be granted for a strictly limited term. But corporate money and corrupt legislators have caused it to be extended to an essentially endless term. In addition, many traditional fair use rights have been abridged or withdrawn.

    Because of this a great many people see the current state of copyright law as deeply unjust. They also see our Justice Dept focused more on enforcing copyright rather than pursuing financial fraud and corporate crime. This is a large part of the reason why copyright infringement is not taken seriously.

    As long as people like you are jumping up and down screaming, “thief, dirty thief, making digital copies is the same as stealing grannies groceries”, we’ll never have a rational discussion about any of this.

  7. A copyright is a legal attempt to protect intellectual property that follows the logical flow of protecting personal freedoms and security of personal property and possessions. The fact that an idea or performance is available online does not take into account the way in which those bits were made available – usually by illegally copying a CD and giving the result away, thus depriving the artist of just compensation. By that logic, if I see an expensive camera on the seat of someone’s car and the doors are unlocked, it’s mine for free? Production of sound tracks is not cheap. It involves paying musicians, sound studio time, marketing and production. It has a monetary value and expense in addition to the intrinsic value of the interpretation.

    Regardless of the laws in effect, what we are dealing with here is a matter of moral, ethical concern. Most laws are based on the Judeo-Christian idea of the Golden Rule. Being unwilling to give away your talents and performances for free is a right as well. The fact that music can be converted into a bitstream, captured and given away, does not justify doing so, nor does it validate the practice by comparing it to more egregious crimes. Those who so adamantly defend their “right” to take what they want in exchange for no compensation to the original provider, would be the first to scream should their personal rights be infringed should the situation be reversed. Do unto others …

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