Since 2005, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota environmental rehabilitation coordinator for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, has been battling the music industry in court for the sharing of 22 songs. With several mouths to feed at home, and a husband that is unemployed, Thomas-Rasset will have a difficult time paying the $222,000 that the government ordered her to pay the music industry.
Most Americans will agree that the ruling was very harsh for Thomas-Rasset, and that it appears as if the courts and the music industry attempted to make an example out of this woman in order to prevent other people from pirating music, movies and software in the future.
This raises a fundamental question, though: should piracy be illegal?
A first impression of this question may provoke responses that attack its validity. “Of course piracy should be illegal,” one might say. “It steals from the creators!”
Through intellectual debates on this subject, I have heard a myriad of arguments against downloading content without paying for it. These arguments defend the “losses” that the music industry suffers and compare the download of a few megabyte file to that of the stealing of a car. The ones that claim that piracy is bad make illogical comparisons to actual objects that took time and money to assemble.
I will be addressing these arguments, but before do I, I want to analyze the label that is often used to describe those that illegally share and download files off of the Internet. These people are called “pirates.”
Pirates, as many of you know, have the stereotypical portrayal of using a rickety boat and a crew of men to steal the loot of other boats and to find treasure. In the present, we can look towards examples such as the Somali pirates that have taken advantage of the instability, poverty, and corruption of the Somali nation to attack vessels and steal goods.
Logically, the phrase “piracy” has its roots in the pillages of pirates, but, as I will prove, this comparison is not only illogical, but it serves as a stigma against those that do pirate, such as in the discourse of electronic media.
So why can we not compare physical piracy to that of electronic piracy? Well, with the former, there is a loss of actual product. If one were to steal a car, for example, the car dealership would have been out thousands of dollars. For a media file, however, the ones that originally produced the file did not lose anything of physical value.
A common retaliation to this argument, though, is that it deprives the music, movie or software industry of a transaction. If one could not pirate a file, they claim, the person would take the alternative route and purchase the media from the store or directly from the company.
I do not doubt the fact that this happens, however, in several other instances, the person is deterred from purchasing the product altogether. This is especially true for products that are outrageously expensive, such as Sony Vegas Professional Movie Maker. Due to costs that can climb up to $900 for a simple piece of software, several hackers have produced key generators that allow one to download the free trial of the software and then use the generator to crack the key code that is required to activate the full program.
How about items that are far less costly, such as movies, games and music? Although the price barrier is far less strenuous for these items, the digital rationale for piracy still holds strong.
The argument against pirating items that hold less of a monetary value than Sony software is that it hurts the music industry and the artist. In reality, though, the direct profits from the media do not make-up the bulk of the profits for the music industry or the producers. Merchandise that cannot be downloaded, concerts that require expensive tickets to experience bands live and advertisements that are established with the record industry, contribute to the grand bulk of the profits of both the companies and the artists. Moreover, streaming, download or torrenting music enables people to sample music. If they like it, they may be compelled to purchase the actual albums, buy shirts and autobiographies, and perhaps even mosh at concerts. Finally, even if music is digitally free, there will be enough people around that prefer the hardcopies to keep the record industry alive, even if “piracy” were to be decriminalized and legalized.
Unfortunately, though, we find that the government is working diligently to catch up to the pace of the Internet. They failed with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the Senate and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (ACT) in the House last year, but they will be coming back for more. With Congressmen on both sides of the aisle, including our own progressive Senator Al Franken, in the pockets of Hollywood, we know for a fact that this issue will not simply go away.
Of course, as the government deals with more pressing concerns, such as the sequester that took effect March 1, as well as the government shutdown that is scheduled for March 27, we find that Internet providers, fearful that they will be liable for harms, have taken a defensive approach. As of last month, providers, such as Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner and AT&T, have begun to initiate strike systems. Each provider is enacting different penalties, ranging from the slow-down of Internet speed to the temporary suspension of Internet access.
Thankfully, these punishments do not appear to have any legal consequences, but as the justice system becomes more vigilant, such as in the case of Thomas-Rasset, media pirates will have to be careful with their online activities. My recommendations include staying caught-up on the news, limiting the amount of data that one pirates per month, using proxy servers to block one’s IP address if the Internet providers become suspicious, and reducing the amount of time that programs such as µTorrent are running on one’s computer.
The stigmatization against the harmless act of downloading media is wrong for a 21st century society. As we become more aware of our Internet rights, as well as the rights that we ought to have, hopefully our government will have an epiphany that relinquishes them from the control of Hollywood and other special interests.
Ronald Dixon welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.