Is sharing digital content over the Internet really wrong and immoral? Should it be made illegal and a punishable crime?
Therefore, while the world governments make decisions behind closed doors, it is important that people should at least be properly informed about what really is going on; what is at stake?
This article discusses the issue of sharing in a wider context, presenting both sides of the story, in the hope that it will help stimulate a healthy discussion and assist people in making the right choice
Lets start by understanding the context and then isolating and defining the real problem.
What is Sharing?
It appeals to common sense that sharing what you have with others who may benefit from it could only be a good thing. If you tend to be religious, you’d agree that most major religions in the world teach us to be generous and to share what we have. Some religions even go as far as to guarantee that whatever we give in this life would be given back to us in the next, with interest.
Same is true of ethical values in most cultures, east or west, north or south. From ancient times to this day, a person who shares his wealth and belongings is considered generous and humane. The act of sharing is universally believed to be a good act, across all cultures and beliefs.
When I was a teenager, I was hooked on reading and would spend almost all my money on books. If I bought a book, it was mine. I used to regularly share my books with friends and freinds-of-friends and no one ever came to tell me I was breaking any law or being immoral. Quite the contrary, I always found myself at the receiving end of gratitude, friendship and even respect.
Comes the Internet age and suddenly it turns out when I buy a (digital)book I cannot simply email a copy to my friends and friends-of-friends and what was once a simple act of generosity has now turned into something so complicated most people seem hesitant to either support it openly or oppose it openly. So what is really going on here?
Is sharing your digital content akin to stealing and pirating and thus immoral? Should it be illegal? Or is it true that the Internet has fundamentally changed something in the world and the old rules don’t apply? If so, what has changed and why the old rules don’t apply?
In a wider context, this is one of those issues which will considerably influence the direction of all future human development and thus of the human civilization. It is vital for each one of us to understand the issue independently of all the media noise and make an informed choice!
The Argument Against Sharing
The argument against sharing goes something like this: the problem lies not with the concept of sharing, but with the concept of ‘ownership’ and ‘redistribution’.
First, there is something called ‘intellectual property rights’ which in plain English means that for every creative work the ownership belongs to the creator. So if you write a book, you have the intellectual property rights on that book, if you create a song, you have intellectual property rights for that song and so on. Then there is the right-to-copy or ‘copyright’ which means the rights to create copies of a creative work belong to the person who created it. However, the copyright owner can sell this right-to-copy to someone else, for instance, the publisher who published your book or the record company who produced your song.
When I buy your book, in paper or digital form, what I’m buying is a single copy of it and not the rights to produce more copies of it and redistribute it. Same goes for the song.
When I shared my books as a teenager, I was not making copies of my books and redistributing them. It was the one and same copy that I was sharing. In the digital age, this would be equivalent to someone else reading a book or listening to a song that happens to be on your computer or your eReader or your smartPhone or any other device you own.
On the other hand, if I were to start making copies of the book or song, digitally or otherwise, and start redistributing it publicly, what I’m doing is clearly wrong because I did not have the right-to-copy in the first place. My action could therefore be likened to stealing or pirating and hence illegal.
Sounds logical and fair. So, it appears, all is good and well. As the world governments move towards ever-more drastic measures to counter piracy and sharing, we can all feel safe in the knowledge that we are in good hands and the world at large is moving in the right direction.
But hang on, what is the argument for sharing, and is there really one?
The Argument For Sharing
The people in favour of sharing are faced with two problems:
- To demonstrate why the argument against sharing is wrong, and
- To explain to general public why a concept which has served the human civilization well for most of its history is now obsolete; i.e. the concept of copy-right.
Because it is easier to demonstrate (1) after (2) is understood, we shall start with the discussion about copy-right and what has gone wrong with it.
In the good old days, there used to be poor artists and there used to be rich art-patrons, those who admired and appreciated the works of art and thus directly or indirectly supported the artist(s). There was no concept of copy-right and people did in fact copied whatever they wished. Artists and creators had no problem with it because their livelihood did not depend on selling copies of their works, quite the contrary, the more their work was copied and distributed, the more their fame spread bringing them more patrons.
There was also no motivation for anyone to falsely claim the work of another artist as their own since this was not likely to bring them any benefits, financial or otherwise. This model worked extremely well until two things happened:
- We became too many, and
- We discovered ‘capitalism’.
As populations and societies grew, it started becoming harder and harder for artists to find patrons and for art-lovers to discover worthy works of art, may it be a painting, a book, a song or something else. This situation made some very clever people to realize that if they could somehow position themselves as the middlemen connecting the two sides, there was ample money to be made. Thus was created the role of ‘agents’.
These middlemen, or agents, provided a valuable service to artists by promoting and selling their work to a large number of newly wealthy art-lovers and in return they received a fair percentage from the sales. Thus began the commercialization of art.
The twentieth century saw the advent of the film industry and in the later half, of mass entertainment. As the market and demand for these products of art and entertainment grew, the agents became more and more organized turning into studios, publishers, galleries etc. while artists became more and more dependant on these middlemen.
Suddenly the balance of power was flipped in favour of the middlemen. Now it was not the middlemen who needed the artists, but artists who queued up on the doorsteps of the middlemen in the hope of being selected and promoted. Thus was born the entertainment industry, the dependence of artist on middlemen to produce and sell works of art and the entire concept of copyright.
This same shift of balance also resulted in the middlemen keeping a lion’s share from the sales of works of the artists and paying to them only a small percentage. Nevertheless, the insatiable demand by the general public for these products of art and entertainment meant that even that small percentage made many an artist rich beyond their dreams.
This was the model created and adopted by the twentieth century, the model to which You and Me are familiar, and it made a lot of sense in the context of twentieth century technology.
Artists needed the middlemen to become known and to reach their potential customers, the general public.
The general public needed the middlemen to sort and select from among hundreds of thousands of aspiring artists and finally bringing to You and Me the best of the best.
And because the middlemen do it for a living, they are good at it. If we, the people, had to discover artists by ourselves, may they be singers or actors or authors or anything else, what chances there are of us discovering a Madonna or an Al Paccino or an Agatha Christie from among almost seven billion of us?
This highly successful 20th century model, therefore, is being used until today and built upon the following principles:
- The middlemen provide a valuable service to artists by producing, introducing, marketing and selling their works. To do this, artists enter into legal contracts with middlemen granting them copyright permissions on their works and accepting to receive only a small percentage resulting from their work.
- The middlemen, now usually the copyright holders, also provide a valuable service to general public in that they perform all the sorting and selecting from among millions of artists and their works and bring to us only the works of best quality.
Fair enough, so where is the problem? How is the concept of copyrights obsolete?
Well the problem arise from the fact that ever since the Internet became ubiquitous, the middlemen are no longer required for the three key services they provided, i.e. selection, production and promotion. Let’s see why.
Before the age of internet, it was virtually impossible for a hundred million people to collaborate on anything, be it creation of content or selection of content. But today its commonplace.
Wikipedia is a shining example of user-created content. Numerous examples of user-selected content are spread across the web. When you click on the Facebook Like button at the bottom of this page, or any other page on the world-wide-web, you are taking part in a process of selection. When you Digg an article or +1 a song or a book or even share a YouTube music video on your site or page, you are taking part in content selection. When you favourite a movie or a band or write a blog or review about them, you are creating user-selected content.
Such models of user-selection were practically impossible without internet, but now they are not.
We, the people, do not need any middlemen now to select for us. We are learning to live and adapt to an information society where information travels at the speed of light. If a friend or acquaintance of mine produces a work of art and shares it, I get to know about it instantly. If I Like it, everyone I know gets to know about it instantly, AND, more importantly, because the people I know tend to have similar likes and dislikes as myself, a selection by Me is a lot more personally meaningful to them and vice-versa. If any of them Like it, everyone they know gets to know about it and the circle goes on and on. As time goes on, newer and even more efficient models of content-selection can be found. No agents required.
Creating content digitally usually requires a fraction of resources needed to create physical content. Combine this with the fact that millions of low-cost or open-source software systems are freely available to artists of all genres and You see why most artists do not require a truckload of cash to produce their masterpiece.
When it becomes absolutely necessary to employ physical resources, such as recording studios or filming studios etc. independent studios already exist in most major cities which can be rented at extremely reasonable prices. In some parts of Europe such as Estonia, it is already commonplace for artists to actually invest a small amount themselves to create their first album or book. Same is true for art films and documentaries.
Once again, there is ample opportunity for artists of all genres to forego the middlemen and utilize modern technology to produce their works at a fraction of traditional costs.
Nowhere is the influence of Internet more clearly visible than in the area of promotion, distribution and sales.
In the past, promotion of artistic and entertainment works largely depended on advertising in traditional media outlets at prohibitively high costs well beyond the reach of individual artists. But as we all know, the Internet changed all that long ago.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, getting a million visits to your site or your YouTube channel or Facebook page is not all that difficult and has been achieved by countless previously unknown amateurs.
Where in the past books, CDs and DVDs needed to be printed, bounded and distributed physically to thousands of shops over vast distances at huge costs, so the end users could finally purchase them, today one can reach customers across the globe through a single internet shop, at a cost of, most probably, zero. Not to mention the almost non-existent environmental footprint. I say almost because computers still require electricity to run and how that electricity is produced could very well be environmentally damaging depending on where You live.
In conclusion then, it can fairly be stated that the middlemen of today are obsolete together with the whole issue of copyrights.
And if the entre concept of copyrights is obsolete, then the argument against sharing too is obsolete as it depends solely and entirely on the law of copyrights.
But if this is all true, how come the middlemen are still around? Why do artists still work through middlemen?
This brings us to the most interesting aspect of the problem, i.e. greed!
Greed of the middlemen and greed of the artists! I’m speaking here of the artists who have become used-to with earning millions a month, rightfully or not.
And surely the middlemen cannot be expected to simply give up the businesses which bring them billions annually just for the greater good of humanity!
That, is the crux of the problem.
The middlemen are refusing to either leave or update their working models to match technological innovation because there are large sums of money involved. Any change would mean reduced earnings. So instead, they spend on political lobbying and media campaigns to make everyone believe, including the governments, that they have a valid argument, which, as we can now see, they don’t. Capitalism at its very best!
Having presented both sides of the story as best as I could, here is my take on the issue.
Fear of Loosing
I remember the early days of the PC revolution. (Yes, I’m old enough to have lived in the early 80s.) Initially people looked at computers with contempt and sarcasm. Can this bulk of cold metal do anything better than a human being? As computers became smarter and more ubiquitous, the contempt turned into an unspoken fear. Will I lose my job when my company or department buys computers? If computers are going to start doing what people used to do, what will happen to us? Will there be massive unemployment? Will we become extinct?
The ‘age of fear’ lasted only so long as people realized that there is actually an opportunity shining right in their face. If they hurry up and learn to use computers, or even better, to program computers, they could end up significantly increasing their net incomes. This gave rise to the boom of private ‘computer training centres’ in the 80s and 90s.
Eventually, yes, computers did take over a massive amount of workload previously depending on humans and no, it did not in any considerable way contribute to unemployment. If anything, we ended up with remarkable efficiency and resource gains in areas as diverse as farming and manufacturing to transportation and medical systems, ultimately resulting in better products and services and thus a better world for all of us.
The situation of the media middlemen of today, i.e. the recording companies, publishing companies etc. is not much different. They live in fear. The fear to lose the giant media conglomerates they have created with decades of hard-work. They failed to foresee how fundamentally the internet is going to change the rules of the game and how outdated and unsuitable their business models are for the 21st century.
The biggest contribution of Internet to human society is that it levels playing fields. It provides fair opportunities to all. With the internet around, anyone can write a book, digitally publish it, promote it, distribute it and sell it. Gone is the monopoly and hegemony of large publishing houses. Anyone can record a song or an album and similarly promote, distribute and sell it. Anyone with a phone camera and ability to write is a journalist. Anyone with a camcorder is now a film director and producer.
Now, how does that compare to the concept of billionaire media moguls and multi-millionaire ‘stars’?
Let me put the question more squarely to You.
In our current 20th century model based on copyrights, how much does a ‘star’ earn in a month?
How much does a doctor, scientist, teacher, fire-fighter (add your favourite profession) earn in a month?
While I admire Madonna and absolutely love to watch the performance of George Clooney, does their work really and truly justify a hundred times or a thousand times higher earning than anyone else in the society? I rest my case.
This is the necessary evil of the copyrigyht-based obsolete model. It is remarkably imbalanced. It provides an unreasonably large return to the artist and the middlemen. And that is the reason number one why the middlemen and artists are not going to let it go without a fight.
But the future lies in the concept of fair and balanced return. Now that the technology is available, the playing field will be levelled. In the new model, content will be free to copy and share and artists will most probably once again be supported by patrons through donations. The exact same model is already in full swing within the open-source software industry. It’s just a matter of time that open-source songs and books will catch up. The last frontier would probably be open-source movies.
What we are witnessing today is a 99% vs. 1% type of war between the people and the media empires.
Whose side the governments should take?
Well, the governments should take the side of the people, of course, but the democratic system guarantees, counter-intutively, that they have no choice but to side with the media moguls. If you were a politician, believe me you wouldn’t want to go against the media, the 99% can be brain-washed or ‘educated’ when you have media friends on your side.
What everyone seem to have forgotten though that in a democracy, ultimate power lie with the people, or at least it bloddy well should!
The challenge lies in educating people to understand the issue and start pressuring their governments to do the right thing!
Wether You share today or not is up to You, but if you are a responsible citizen who loves democracy and who cares about our common fundamental rights and freedoms, I strongly urge You to help spread the word. At work, school, gym, bar wherever you can, talk to people. Write on your blog or on your page! If you care passionatly about freedom and democractic principles as I do, write a letter to your local elected representative and even better, get it signed by as many people as you can, explain the issue at stake and why the copyrights based model is obsolete. Sharing is Caring, lets spread the word.
In a democratic system, people elect representatives trusting them to create laws on behalf of the people. Laws which benefit the whole society. We must, therefore, keep in mind that the job of our elected servants is to create laws reflecting the choice of the majority, and not the choice of a 1% minority.