Wow. Awesome conversation on this issue, everyone!

In case you missed it, I posted some talking points and discussion questions about the issue of music piracy yesterday, and great comments ensued. Below is a quick summary of noteworthy points made, with quotes uncredited (just read the actual comments if you want to see who said what).

Ultimately, piracy is, according to the law, stealing. But “stealing” itself is perhaps a more difficult and complex concept than this, especially given the vague nature of the piracy laws’ wording, and the difficult-to-pin-down consequences of a lossless replication technology such as mp3s.

The water is further muddied by the “we all do it” ethic, which, considering the example of speed limits that even police officers regularly ignore, reminds us that some laws were never intended to be enforced to the letter. But a lack of enforcement doesn’t legitimize the “we all do it” ethic, because while the fact that “we all do it” is maybe a good excuse, it is no real ETHIC at all.

So it seems the issue of piracy revolves mostly around consumer demand and old vs new business models. Mp3s and the iTunes distribution platform changed the game in the music industry, and although the new playing field is still unstable, consumers still behave as they always have. If content can be easily obtained for a price that seems fitting to the consumer, then it will be purchased and not stolen.

Thus ends the summary of comments/discussion on yesterday’s post, so now I’m throwing in my two cents…

Laws don’t work very well when their express intent is to merely enforce old business models. Personally, I’m convinced that this is the bottom line of current piracy laws. Seth Earnest pointed out that, in 1992, my Pearl Jam radio-recorded mix tapes were actually not illegal at all. Nobody was accusing mixtape composers of “stealing” back then, and no new developments have been discovered in the ethics realm over the past 20 years. What has changed is the PERCEPTION of whether after-market duplication helps or hurts the businesses involved. Record labels and distribution companies PERCEIVED that grainy cassette duplications wouldn’t hurt their sales, but would rather probably help their music be promoted and distributed. But the perception reversed when the digital revolution happened, and now the after-market duplication all of a sudden poses a threat. But… this is all just perception, and as such completely unprovable. If it had always been apparent that what we now call “piracy” actually helps the music industry, then laws against piracy would probably never even have been introduced. But it is all speculation. Sure, there are stats to show how many people have pirated music or how many downloads have happened illegally, but there is no way to prove that those doing the pirating would have otherwise made legitimate purchases. Huge grey area there.

I’m venturing into waters I don’t necessarily trust here, so bear with me as I think out loud (um, in print). Consider the oil industry. They haven’t enacted any laws to stop the development of electric automobiles. Rather, it appears they just bought all the electric auto technology and sat on it, insisting on operating with the same oil-based fuel revenue model that they’ve had for the last 80 years, presumably because the infrastructure of this model is too big to easily reconfigure to adapt to electric cars. If the music industry perceived that mp3 file technology was a threat to their 1992 model, then they should have just bought the technology and squashed it. There are no laws against that kind of business behavior, as far as I know. That’s a sucky reality of capitalism for consumers, but it’s a reality nonetheless. The mistake for the music industry was deciding that mp3 technology was too big to squash while simultaneously deciding that the 1992 music sales model was too big to change.

Case in point: iTunes originally had an agreement with the labels that they distributed for, an agreement that mandated all files sold through iTunes would be encrypted with a code to protect against after-market duplication (Fairplay DRM). This was the record label’s doing, according to Steve Jobs, and Jobs thought it a pretty dumb idea. And then, in 2009, the LABELS (not Apple) changed their minds, and the DRM encryption was dropped from iTunes files. This change of heart was the result of sales INCREASING on DRM-free experiments like Amazon.

Wait, the “protection” against piracy ends up producing less sales, so you ditch it? So… you were never concerned about piracy anyway, were you? Of course not. Businesses don’t care about ethics, laws, or piracy. They care about profit and sales. The laws about piracy were brought about by concerned businesses, but the concerns were never ethical. The “stealing” rhetoric is simply an attempt to put the larger world of ethics and morality on the side of the concerned businesses. As was rightly pointed out in yesterday’s comments, real STEALING is when I take something from you so that you no longer have it. Copying/sharing mp3s is merely utilizing the aspects of a technology the way they were designed to be utilized.

Closing thoughts…

“Hey! You can’t put the soda fountain itself in the lobby of the restaurant! Then people will just refill their soda whenever they want instead of paying for more of it. That’s STEALING! Oh wait… maybe we should just offer free refills as part of our beverage service? That would be new and competitive of us! No, no… let’s not. Taco Bell already did that. I know! Let’s get those amazing new special soda cups that create more soda every time you take a sip! And this additional magic soda won’t cost us anything, because of the magic cup! Everyone will want to try it! But… we should make a law prohibiting anyone from sharing a sip with their friends. That way we can bask in our amazingly lower overhead costs (because the magic cups cost almost nothing to manufacture), and force everyone to buy soda the way they always have, pretending as if the magic cup technology doesn’t even exist! This idea won’t backfire on us, will it?”

More closing thoughts…

“No! You can’t buy an electric car! Your car will run without gas then! And every mile you drive without using gas is like STEALING money from those of us who sell gas and have always assumed that to be the only fuel for a vehicle.”

“Um, sorry dude… the electric car is what I want. Why don’t you just start building electric cars instead of drilling for oil? Or maybe you could make your gasoline cheaper than electricity. Or maybe you could invent a special glass that magically refills your soda every time you take a sip. Oh… Apple already did all of that? Hmmm… I see. So, what used to be your pie is now their pie and your pissed about it. Yep, that sure is a bummer for you. But I still like my electric car.”