Digital piracy: Sharing is not stealing

Published: June 7, 2011
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It is only piracy if we share media on the internet with purpose of making a profit.

Today, we are witness to an increasing number of crackdowns on piracy, with the police raiding street vendors, storerooms and middlemen involved in piracy of media goods including music CDs, VCDs, DVDs, books, software CDs, etcetera, with tougher laws, heavier penalties and fines, and with increasing court cases filed by media producers against pirates.

However, piracy is an overwhelming force, with millions of criminals working hand in hand with consumers – us, the people who patronise the theft in films, music, comics, books, and other media goods.

Sharing is not stealing: At least, it shouldn’t be

How about digital piracy though? Digital pirates are those who upload media goods online and make a profit out of selling and distributing them, for money. The operative phrase here is ‘selling for money’.

Back in the analogue age, when you listened to music on audio cassettes and watched movies on video tapes, you habitually ‘lent’ tapes to friends. We all know that redistribution, copying or sharing of such content was forbidden, whether for commercial purposes or otherwise, however that did not stop us for doing so. Our friends recorded the music on blank cassette tapes and shared it with their circles – again, it’s illegal to do so, because the music producer would have made a profit had your friend legally purchased a music CD from a store.

The same concept applies to sharing of digital content. Music, film and PDF files that are put up online (copyright infringement) and shared among peers or users of a torrent sites, hosting sites, or a user’s personal blog, are also copyright infringement under the No Electronic Theft Act (US). The contention is that the website owner ends up making profits out of selling media goods that do not belong to him, while this type of free sharing disallows media producers from making money legitimately.

The reality is black and white.

A lot of media goods are distributed, remixed, recycled, reproduced and redistributed into the public domain because of such inimitable sharing. Can you imagine a digital age where every college kid is forced to buy a music CD or DVD in order to watch one scene or listen to three songs? I guess the trend of creating Singles evolved from this limitation. It’s economies of scale and clearly, students or those sharing files with other users are not en masse out to make a buck – those who do, can be jailed.

I believe our copyright laws are far too obsessed with the concept of ‘protection’ of the artists’ work. Sharing is clearly distinct from selling (media goods) or what is seen as an umbrella term – digital piracy. Recently, a lawsuit was filed against Pirate Bay and I am afraid it’s the tenth of several hundred lawsuits waiting to be inflicted on the system of digital sharing.

Why do we buy pirated goods off the streets?

1) Media goods are expensive. For example if a music CD costs $14.99 in the US, it has the equivalent price in developing countries like Brazil and India. This means there is no price ratio taken into consideration by the producers / production houses/ marketers while fixing prices across geographic regions. Rather, we (the developing world) are expected to pay what is generally 50 to 100 times the price of the CD in local currency.

2) Shoplifting is a crime, because you enter a shop knowing full-well that products are on display for sale, and not for free consumption. In the online world, while there are dedicated portals to purchase media goods, consumers also have access to free media goods. Research from independent government bodies demonstrate that file sharing has actually helped increase sales of music CDs, theatre/ box office collections and book purchases (Three excellent posts on this: here, here and here).

3) Digital content allows us greater freedom to choose specific content for download. Back in the analogue age, I had to buy a music CD of Michael Jackson even if I loved only four of the 14 songs in the album. Today, I just download a couple of tracks, or pay for it on iTunes. However, not all digital users across the world can afford to sign up with iTunes and pay cents short of a dollar for one song. You do know that in several developing nations, the daily wage of a worker is less than $2; surprisingly the workers are able to afford cheap cell-phones and download caller tunes and music from the mobile service provider. So, choice and pricing once again play a huge role in encouraging digital downloads.

Media producers appeal to the conscience of pirates and consumers through ad campaigns

TV, digital and radio campaigns created by media producers, appeal to citizens to stop piracy as it ‘kills’ artistic freedom and their livelihood. Clearly, such campaigns are mostly targeted towards physical piracy, rather than digital, because scores of file sharing and download sites do not make money out of the media content they upload. Advertisements, clicks on banners and donate button are means to keep the website running, not profits incurred from sales of any media goods.

Let me iterate here, clearly: a music album, a book or movie, journals, architectural designs and paid news come with a price tag and need to be purchased from a legal outlet, authorised showroom or distributor premise. The operative word is ‘purchase.’ If you redistribute physical copies of these goods and make money out of it, then that’s clearly piracy.

However, what the Internet manages to do is that it circumvents this ‘store-room only’ policy and allows consumers to sample media goods, just like we did, back in the analogue age. That should not be classified as piracy or any form of criminal intent. It would have been a crime if there was clear evidence that such ‘free’ sharing is leading to decrease in sales or profit making for media producers and artists, writers and so on – clearly that is not the case.

This post was originally published here.

Nilofar Ansher

Nilofar Ansher

A social worker based in Hyderabad who blogs at trailofpapercuts.wordpress.com and tweets at @culture_curate.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.