There’s been a lot of buzz over the past few years about DRM, file sharing, “intellectual property theft”, etc. A lot of that has been the two extreme sides – the media industry and their “have it our way” attitude, and the extremists who feel that everything digital should be freely shareable by everyone. I don’t fall into either of those categories, and I don’t think the majority of people do either.
First, let’s look at a bit of history. In my early childhood (1990′s), cassettes were giving way to CDs, and VHS tapes were the norm for videos. You could go to any corner store and buy a blank cassette tape or VHS tape, and it was widely known that people recorded TV shows or copied audio or video tapes. To cope with this, a portion of the purchase price of every blank tape was distributed among media companies and artists, to compensate them for the copies being made. It seemed that everyone was happy about this – nobody was trying to ban the sale of blank tapes, and my neighborhood video rental store never made me sign a contract promising not to copy a rented tape. There seemed to be a balance between the need for profit and what consumers wanted to do.
That all changed when the world went digital – first audio CDs, then movies on DVD. It requires mention that almost all of the problems faced by the media industry (namely “piracy” and file sharing) were brought by the industry itself. I vividly remember, over a period of a mere two years or so, the transition from VHS to DVD. I remember going to the video rental store (we were late adopters, nobody in my family had a standalone DVD player) and being told that new releases were no longer coming out on VHS. We had to buy a DVD player. This was a format that was pushed on consumers by the movie industry, and was pushed hard and fast. While everyone talked of the quality benefits, it was obvious that distributors were in love with the format’s cheap and quick reproduction. I simply do not believe that the movie industry was unaware (especially given the proliferation of DVD drives in computers) that this cheap reproduction was as easily available to consumers as it was to them. If they were unaware, we must ask how their million-dollar-a-year technical teams never mentioned it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The movie industry chose to convert to a format that’s easily copied. The movie industry chose to convert to a format that could be easily read – and copied – on any home computer. They should be forced to accept that choice, and the effect that anyone with a computer can duplicate or share their products. If they didn’t want people to do this, they should have stuck with VHS, or gone to a higher-quality tape format.
But, I digress. The main point that I want to make is about consumer choice, and how that effects purchasing (and sharing) habits.
In my parent’s generation, and those before it, customers voiced their choice through making a purchase or not making a purchase. If they didn’t like a car salesman’s attitude, they’d buy the car from someone else. If they didn’t like the terms of a warranty, they’d buy their washing machine from Sears instead of the local store. If they didn’t like their phone company, they’d switch.
My generation, in the digital age, was faced with a different choice – buy or share. The recording and movie industries more or less made this choice for us. They wouldn’t let us buy how we wanted to, so we made the other choice.
This choice required a bit of a tangent to explain. The industry wants us to think of file sharing as stealing. When sharing digital files, they want us to think of the fact that the file is duplicated (i.e. my friend now has it, but I still have it too). This is simply a side-effect of how digital systems work. Whether right or wrong, whether antiquated or not, in most human minds the concept of stealing is inextricably linked to physical property. Walking into a library and walking out with a book that you didn’t check out is clearly stealing. However, most people wouldn’t think the same thing of photocopying some pages from the book. Most people wouldn’t think of photocopying a newspaper article and mailing it to their friend as stealing. How many people, in the day of audio cassettes, thought of it as “stealing” when they copied a tape for their friend? I’d guess that, for the vast majority of people, file sharing is much more closely associated with these actions than walking out of a record store with a CD.
My personal theory is that a large amount of file sharing (of copyrighted material) would stop if the movie industry would let people buy the way they want.
There was a time, a few years ago, when I got almost all of my music through peer-to-peer file sharing (though, unlike many, I didn’t allow uploads). I never thought much of it – I shared lots of things with my friends, why not music? Then RIAA started their PR and lawsuit campaigns. They started suing college kids for sharing music – and suing them for a lot more than even the cost of the CDs they’d “stolen” (and that’s ignoring the fact that they just “stole” the information on the CDs, so the actual cost should have been lower, less the physical media and distribution costs). So, I heard what the recording industry was telling me: we don’t like you. I stopped downloading music, and I also stopped buying it. For about 3 1/2 years, I listened to what I already had on CD, or the radio, but nothing new.
Then there was iTunes. You could buy whatever music you wanted, usually for less than $1. But you had to use their software, which didn’t run on Linux. And if you wanted to listen to it away from your computer, you had to use an iPod. And you couldn’t burn it to CD, so it wouldn’t work with the older stereo in my car.
Finally, the industry woke up. Amazon came out with their MP3 store, where I could buy individual songs or complete albums, as standard (non-DRMed) MP3 files, that I could listen to on my cell phone, any of my computers, or burn to CD and play in my car. And I’ve been hooked ever since – I get all of my music for a low price, in a standard unrestricted format. I can burn it to CD for my car, put it on my computers at home and at work, put it on my laptop, put it on my phone. Thanks to 1-click ordering and instant downloads, I probably spend more on music now than I did when I had to go to a store to buy CDs. And why? Because I have choice. Because, finally, they’ll sell music to me the way I want it – and I buy it.
I don’t know of any source of unbiased statistics, but I’d venture a guess that since various stores have begun selling DRM-free music online, the volume of peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted music files has gone down.
But it seems that the movie industry hasn’t woken up to this, the MPAA hasn’t taken a lesson from RIAA. While options are starting to appear – NetFlix streaming and others – they still haven’t made the realization that customers will continue to choose “other” until offered the choice they want. I still can’t buy and download movies on Linux, and since I use MythTV for my home theater, it’s no use to get a NetFlix box. Until offered what they want – a download of an unencumbered, DRM-free movie file, or full DVD image, people will keep sharing movies, and will keep renting them and ripping full-resolution copies.
Finally, it’s worth mention that the secret Anti-Counterfitting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is obviously tilted in the favor of content producers, and has a number of chilling provisions for the Internet. Most importantly, it seeks to reverse previous law and hold ISPs liable for infringement by their customers. Firstly, and I say this with all my heart, this is wrong. Until publishers start successfully suing Xerox for every copy of a page of a book ever made, don’t try and hold ISPs responsible for what their customers do. But more importantly, this is braindead – we should know by now that copyright holders can’t win the cat-and-mouse game. We saw it with p2p and random ports, etc. Trying to detect transmission of infringing material is impossible. Once a new method is invented, it will be bypassed. No matter how many millions the media industry spends on trying to detect violations, there’s simply more people working on the other side, and they’re probably smarter and better motivated as well. If the media industry pushes for ISPs to use deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, the users will just turn to PKI and encryption to hide their data. If ISPs just look at traffic patterns, the users will accept slower download times and shape their traffic to look like web browsing.
If the media industry really wants to stop file sharing of their content (instead of just benefiting from lawsuits) the solution is simple – let consumers buy it the way they want.