So I guess protests can make a difference.
In a marvelous show of democracy in action, the surfers of the world united, backed by some of the biggest names in our netscape, and said a sonorous “No” to the attempts of the American congress to eradicate Internet piracy. Without anyone having to torch themselves up, the word of the people was heard and SOPA was stomped. For now.
The arguments raised vehemently against the bill were mostly concerning its draconian collateral damage – that it will make the most honest site hosts liable for even the slightest sign of copyright infringement made by a clueless talkbacker. No doubt, a congress that rejects the consult of experts for “being too nerdy” and proudly touts its own ignorance about the matters it legislates is bound to flatten some civil rights on its blundering stride.
But, of course, it’s something else about the bill that caused webwide distress. What really galvanized IP-owners the world over was the possibility of an unthinkable loss: that of the freebie we’ve grown so accustomed to get in a click.
Last week, on his program Real Time, Bill Maher chided opponents of the bill for their addiction to stealing. The spoiled E-Generation, he imputed, thinks nothing of looting intellectual property and is even willing to go to war for the entitlement to do so.
Boy, we’re terrible.
There is no disputing the ease with which intellectual property is encroached upon nowadays. Presumably, easy access makes one insatiable and, in turn, rapacious. Why buy when you can listen for free? Why wait for an album to come out if by then it will have already been leaked for a month? And no, I don’t draw a line between people who download the songs via whatever file-sharing program they have and people who just enjoy the songs on YouTube (yes, some songs and clips are uploaded officially and legally, but the overwhelming majority is not).
But I think many “caucasian looters” (as Maher describes them), while arguably morally lax, are more self-wary than Maher suggests. Particularly when it comes to music, I think the plight of artists is deeply felt. And with guilt always hanging on the edge of conscience, giving the occasional tremor of doubt before a hefty download, the doughty downloader must always have his moral justifications ready. “I only download albums I wouldn’t have bought otherwise”, “I never download Israeli music”, etc. Rationalizations could easily range from the Utilitarian – “off-mainstream artists receive much more rigorous an exposure this way”; to the Libertarian – “Internet downloads are the true meaning of a Free Market.”
Some of these arguments do actually have merit. Some statistics show surges in CD sales – people still buy the music they love (and by love I mean its Econ. definition – where the benefits outweigh the costs). And many artists would have indeed remained obscure were they not so virally audible.
Perhaps more importantly, we must not disregard the extensive culture of new art conceived upon the stolen – YouTube mash-ups, covers, amateur net-films, all of which would not have been created had they been subjected to royalty costs (and who can say whether these have any less artistic worth than, say, X Factor?).
And so, even knowing irksomely well that it’s wrong, from student to professor, private to officer, secretary to executive (probably even Mr. Politically Incorrect himself), we all enjoy the benefits of piracy. That’s the thing about convenience: it’s super contagious.
The Internet has revealed what abundance there is out there to behold, and granted free access for everyone. We can no longer fathom an Internet of less abandon.
The truth is, we are desperately trying to keep up with a world spinning and changing much faster than ourselves. Our ideas and understanding of things go out of date even before they are fully thought through. Where this race might lead, I think most of us are too terrified to even ponder. So we either try to go with the flow, pretending as though we’re keeping up, as though we understand what’s going on around us. Or we try to force a break, to slow everything down before we spin out of control. Both are illusory, of course. We will keep on racing and our habits and values will keep on changing faster than we can realize.
In the meantime, we struggle to strike that magic balance between our old, virtuous values, that hard work is appropriately rewarded, and our new, viral values of I Want It Fast, Free and in Full HD. The patent unsustainability of the latter doesn’t make it any less pervasive and salient.
Maybe, before rushing to judgment and overhaul action, we should think of how to reconcile these values. Consider encouraging more convenient, well-sponsored, online channels; perhaps providing young YouTubers who use copyrighted material with sponsors to pay for the royalties. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not impossible.
Intellectual property is all about ingenuity and creativity; maybe its time we applied some to protect it.