In Defence of Music Piracy

I recently read this article from Slashdot and here’s my response.

In the American climate of vicious litigation I almost feel sorry for the RIAA. Big companies and trade groups such as the RIAA and the MPAA are bound to sue, regardless of the country they happen to be in and the situation in which their victim allegedly offended, to inspire fear and strike terror into the hearts of those who even dare hover their mouse over a torrent link; so to be based in a country in which their victims actually fight back is really rather unfortunate. Take for example possibly the most famous case of RIAA litigation: that of Jammy Thomas who was fined $222K for sharing 24 files on Kazaa; the big trade group lost. Much of the time victims, unable to afford litigation against the giants, settle for a few thousands dollars of payment outside court, but once the case goes to court, the Goliaths are hit by a wave of bad publicity and occasionally an unsavoury verdict.

On the other hand, the RIAA still has much to gain from such cases. In the case of Jammy Thomas, a ruling in favour of the RIAA would have been disastrous for the filesharing community and a huge success for greedy bastards *ahem* the leaders of the recording industry. The fine was based on a rule invented conveniently by the antagonists in which evidence for a file actually having been shared would have been deemed unnecessary for prosecution, and proof of transaction of information would no longer have been required for file sharers to be crushed by enormous disproportionate fines. A guilty verdict on the scale of $222K would therefore have set a dangerous precedent and left the already stinking rich at even greater an advantage over the innocent music-lover who merely wants to share a fantastic song with a couple of friends. Fortunately the judge had second thoughts about this insanity before realising the illegal nature of the RIAA’s claim and changed the verdict.

My personal opinion has probably already been made quite clear, but I’d like, at risk of utilising tautology (in more than one sense), to expound further. The recording industry has always been over-enthusiastic and hyper-zealous in its war against music piracy. Many cases can be cited, including the ridiculous one brought to my attention by Slashdot in which a clip on Youtube was removed owing to a barely audible Prince soundtrack in the background. What about Dragostea din Tei or ‘Karaoke for the Blind’ to Natalie Imbruglia? Even the makers of South Park, the masters of satire and blunt political humour, picked up on this extremism when the FBI stormed Kyle’s house (or was it Stan’s?) after the kids downloaded about two songs.

A big reason why I feel the RIAA and MPAA’s efforts are ultimately in vain is the domain of such extreme punishment. The people affected by such public examples tend to be those who aren’t extremely tech-savvy and those who almost as a consequence are not as damaging to the recording industry. These are the people who have never heard of SUPER and to whom ‘DivX’ tends to mean ‘that thing that asked me 2 update 2day’ [sic]. These people use Napster and torrents using unencrypted connections and sign up to file sharing services using their real email addresses. These people don’t share files – they just download the occasional TV episode they missed because they don’t know how to stream from BBC iPlayer. And of all people in the world the RIAA and MPAA target them. The real ‘crooks’ are the ones who download and upload through proxies. These people just sit there in Germany or Japan, spitting binaries out into the sea of bits and bytes that is ‘the interweb’ at rates of 100’s of kilobytes per second through anonymising proxies. These are the hackers who use Mailinator to sign up to services, encrypt their hard drives with AES and Twofish and run Tor clients, and have computers dedicated to ripping high-quality video and audio from Blu-Ray and DVDs alike. These people are not afraid of the RIAA; they know they are anonymous and covered. And these are the very ones, if anyone, the RIAA should target.

I also feel that it’s unfair to accuse pirates of damaging the industry as much as is claimed. Mike Henley, a former member of CompSoc, pointed out something that I think makes a lot of sense. If music downloaders suddenly no longer could download it for free, I suspect many of them would just stop downloading full stop. The reason they download is more because it’s convenient than any reason concerning the price: there are simply so many good deals out there that good music is already available for decent prices. Therefore it can be deduced that they are actually not harming the industry – they aren’t reducing demand and removing themselves from the market by downloading for free since the market wouldn’t contain them in the first place.

My final reason is a technical one. The Armchair Economist points out that economc efficiency is completely unaffected by payments from one individual to another since one person’s benefit is another’s loss. Therefore downloading without paying should be identical, efficiency-wise, as buying it from the iTunes store; the difference however is that the buyer has to go through the hassle and spend time paying. This may involve typing in credit card details or typing in a password for PayPal, but whatever the case, it is undeniably true that paying is time-consuming and inconvenient, if only slightly so. This time could be otherwise used to expand the productivity of the economy – by providing a service for example. However miniscule an effect this may have, having to pay reduces the efficiency of an economy. Therefore I’d argue that downloading music for free is more economically efficient than buying it. I like the idea of basing decisions on economic efficiency, and my (probably incorrect but appealingly conclusionary) economic reasoning compels me to take the side of the pirates. This point can also be argued from a utilitarian point of view – the £10 I spend on an album is of more relative utility to me than to an already stinking rich manager. Just to clarify, I am in no way now endorsing stealing which is something entirely different: what I am talking about here is replicating electronic data and distributing it, not taking away any good from anyone else; the record company still owns the music.

Summing up, I’d just like to leave you with this last thought: if sharing 24 songs leaves a $222K sized hole in your pocket, is it really worth cutting down on the file sharing? If you’re completely screwed anyway, what’s the point of sharing 50 instead of 500 songs, or even 5000? In no way am I going to endorse illegal activities publicly, but if you are going to break the law, I’d say go for it in a really big way. Through Tor of course. (And go you)


7 Responses to In Defence of Music Piracy

  1. Mixed messages from your last ~three lines… lulz

  2. vpjayant says:

    You’re almost following my entire belief system in that last paragraph.

  3. Michael Henley says:

    Another well written and thought out post here Bryant. Just to slightly expand on the point of mine you referenced. Personally, I never buy an item of clothing without trying it on. Even if the size is meant to be the same, it inevitably is slightly different, and you have to check. For me the same is true with music. I need more than a 30 second clip before I would be willing to spend my money on a track I might not like. That risk simply doesn’t exist when you download the item for free. If you don’t like it, you bin it, and that is that. My point is that I would never buy the album in the first place because I run the risk of spending ~£10, and finding that money wasted. If I download a track, then I am not taking a sale from them. Indeed, as I would never buy it in the first place, if I do download, and indeed like something, which I then recommend to someone, who them buys it, I have in fact made them a sale.

    The other problem I have with many of the ‘legal’ downloading services, especially the all-popular iTunes is the DRM. If Apple ever decided to close up the iTunes shop, and with it the authorising server, I am effectively locked out of the music I paid for. The same is true of DRM protected software – if the activation server is down, then you can’t use it. Just look at the fiasco when the iPhone was launched. The servers couldn’t cope, and so people couldn’t use their phones until the servers recovered. Where the Amazon MP3 store available in the UK (when is that coming btw?!?), I reckon I would purchase much of the music I like but may have acquired through other means. It amuses me that they want to act as if the bits and bytes are exactly the same as the physical media when it suits them, but when it comes to me being out of pocket because of it suddenly it is my problem. I will close with the reminder that when Yahoo! informed users that they were closing down their DRM server, all they offered by way of help was ‘use the analogue loophole – burn it to CD and then re-rip it’. Were that a washing machine, that kind of customer service would be unacceptable..

  4. kirk says:

    Your economic efficiency and utilitarian arguments do not stand up. With that logic you wouldn’t pay for anything that could be copied and undercut the main market. Intellectual property rights become insignificant which is completely out of order.

  5. Bryant Tan says:

    My economic efficiency and utilitarian arguments are just that – my interpretation is that piracy is economically efficient and, mostly, utilitarian – these arguments have little to do with moral issues.

  6. Bryant Tan says:

    by ‘little to do with moral issues’ I mean ‘not necessarily compatible with my interpretation of morality’

  7. […] the economic downturn should really consider the fact that, As Michael observantly pointed out in a comment, most people who currently download for free just wouldn’t buy music in the first place if […]

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