Not Your Father’s Shoplifting

I remember well my family’s second desktop computer. It was bigger and faster than the clunky Packard Bell that was our entry into the digital age. This new computer, a Compaq, was more than just a glorified typewriter. This computer could not only access the Internet―it was fast enough to download things.

So download we did. First we downloaded games or software, but that was still too large for the modem on our rural DSL.

Then one day my dad came home and said there was this program you could download that would let you access music from other people if you also shared it with them. It was called file sharing. We jumped right in.

I downloaded country albums and my dad downloaded tons of classic rock. We never had to pay for any music again. What an amazing concept. The Internet was just raining down gifts to us, and all we had to do was let someone download our music and then we could download theirs. It was a brilliant concept.

Brilliant and illegal.

My dad eventually put a stop to our downloading when we found out it was illegal. I agreed, but for the next few years I operated in a big gray area in terms of what was illegal piracy and what was just normal usage of media. In high school, as I and most of my friends found out that piracy was illegal, we just reverted back to making copies of albums for each other on CDs. In college, with a whole network at our disposal and some tech-savvy dorm-mates, there was quickly a shared folder in which all the guys’ dorms were dumping movies, music and game. We never considered this illegal; we were just sharing what we had always shared with each other, except now the annoying things like people scratching DVDs or loosing albums in their cars could be avoided. The illicitness was not the enticing factor―sharing with each other was just plain easier. We had no idea that according to record companies and film studios what we were doing was illegal.

In a world of  legal doctrines built on physical property, the public and record companies were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of digital piracy. For one thing, the public was not aware of the potential criminality of such actions, and the attempts by record companies to put a stop to it―sending cease and desist letters to people―was a public relations nightmare. One of my friends who was a huge user of file sharing sites was shocked to receive a letter from a record company basically telling him to stop using file sharing sites, otherwise he would be subject to  jail time and fines that were going to make college loans look cheap. He stopped, as any reasonable person would, but it never seemed right for him to be treated like that. We had not been taught that our actions were illegal. The whole thing had the feeling of a police officer writing a bogus traffic ticket. It just didn’t feel wrong, yet it was.

Artists and fans have moved far beyond the confines of the law. The whole artist and fan relationship is moving forward in terms of interaction, accessibility and the use of content while the record companies and movie studios are stuck in the dark ages of physical media. Sites like Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, Vimeo and Youtube are pushing the envelope of artist/fan interaction and giving fans what they want: access to media without the hassle of annoying record companies. The sheer brilliance of NoiseTrade and Bandcamp is that it gives consumers of music what they want: music at a reasonable price.

Yet is what consumers want actually right or fair? The common belief amongst large corporations is that young people are spoiled brats who want everything for free. I beg to differ. Generation Y is not a generation of media anarchists who cast a blind eye to rules and regulation in an endless desire to consume everything that is hip and coo. According to a 2010 survey in Australia, “GEN Y is prepared to pay more for legal downloads of TV shows and movies than any other age group, while people between 31 and 50 are more likely to pay top dollar for music.”[1] What is really happening in the world today is that young people are unsatisfied with the lack of imagination and investment by entertainment companies in providing the actual services that people want and the Internet is capable of producing. Artists recognize this, and so do companies like Apple, Netflix, Pandora or Spotify. In a recent interview, Neil Young expressed what most young people are already thinking about piracy and the motivation behind it, easy access:

It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone….Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around….That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.[2]

It’s interesting to note that Neil Young is more concerned about the loss of fidelity of music in mp3 files than he is about piracy. Young is not joining in some kind of youth revolt. He is a realist.

In reality, Internet piracy continues today because accessibility is still a problem, but that does not make it right.  Just because something is not readily available does not mean any person can appoint themselves Robin Hood. It would be naive to call people who are participating in piracy “thieves.”  The deeper reality is that, just like shoplifting, piracy is a problem of desire and consumption masquerading as thievery.

The problem with piracy is not consumer frustration with the current distribution system of media. Time and money will fix that problem. People are voting with their wallets. The problem with piracy is the unrelenting desire for things that is part of our culture. The value of media is swallowed by the ubiquity of digital downloading and storage. Ten years ago, the amount of media you owned was constricted by the confines of your home and how many CDs, books and DVDs you could stuff onto your shelves. There was a limit. Now with hard drives and the cloud, the the finite nature of storing media has been erased. Media used to be something that was collectible, treasured and used. Now it is something that can be consumed and tossed into the recycling bin on our computer desktops. There is no limit to the amount of media that can fill our digital landfills. Piracy is ultimately a symptom of our insatiable desire to consume instead of participate.



[1] http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/05/06/great-internet-piracy-survey/#ixzz1mkifRsMw

[2] http://www.theverge.com/2012/1/31/2761597/neil-young-music-steve-jobs-piracy-is-the-new-radio


photo by: bixentro