Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Difference Between Sharing And Stealing

Recently, I ran across this obnoxious old video conveying how Lars Ulrich and the entire RIAA feel about online file sharing. This video really opened my eyes about online file sharing by revealing a major, glaring flaw in their argument.

The obvious conclusion to which we're supposed to be led is that online file sharing is the exact same thing as outright theft. Apparently, they believe that every time anyone gets anything for free it's outright theft. However, it is not. To be actual theft, something would have to be taken without permission to the loss of the victim.

For instance, if I broke into your house and stole your television, it would be theft because you would no longer have the television that I stole. However, if I admired your television, but instead of paying the company that made the television for one just like it, I employed a vastly superior understanding of physics and built an exact copy of the television myself, you couldn't claim I stole your television because now you have a television and I have an exact copy of your television. Furthermore, the television company couldn't assert I stole the intellectual property of their television because I would have bought all the parts and built a very similar, but not exact, television for myself for private, personal use, which is actaully legal so long as I don't try to sell it as my own invention.

Lars Ulrich parallels using Napster to burglarizing some kid's college dorm room. However, if Lars Ulrich just came in my house and stole all my stuff, I could call the cops and press criminal charges on him and have him likely do time in prison, regardless of whether he just called it "sharing" or "borrowing." If I were to download a Metallica song, the worst that could happen is I get notice of a civil suit and sued for far more money than the entire band is worth.

What Lars Ulrich is doing in the video is actual theft because he's taking stuff from the kid and the kid no longer has it. It's not a parallel; it's not even a poorly-constructed parallel. It's a farce because the two ideologies are so divergent that they can't even cohabitate the same plane of existence. When you download a file over the peer-to-peer networks, you have a copy and the source has a copy, so nothing has been lost to either party. When Lars Ulrich breaks into your house and steals your computer, trophies, pants, car, and girlfriend, you fucking don't have that shit anymore and he does. That is the very definition of theft.

Of course, that's not the way the RIAA looks at the situation, and there is no way I can make this argument without addressing their side. According to them, you are stealing because you are acquiring an intellectual property without direct compensation to the companies that represent the artists. Yes, it is true that by copying a song from one computer to another, someone is acquiring something for free. However, they are not acquiring this at a quantifiable loss to the RIAA. One thing you have to keep in mind is that, somewhere along the line, the original, physical copy of the item in question had to be purchased, which means the company and the artist got compensated for the property they lost.

They assert the argument that the people who download their music don't then actually buy it, but you can't actually claim a loss that you haven't actually suffered. Every day, millions of copies of CDs sit on store shelves, and whether or not they have ever downloaded a song from a peer-to-peer network, people blatantly ignore these CDs. Record companies put out millions of CDs each year. If someone steals one of these physical CDs, then the record company has actually suffered a quantifiable loss because they weren't compensated for something that they paid to produce, the physical CD. However, if no one buys the CD because it is chock full of crap, the record companies can't sue the general public for leaving the CD that they paid to produce sitting on the shelves. If companies could sue humanity for opting not to buy shitty products, the entire world economy would collapse under the burden of it's own stupid, capitalistic greed.

Then there's the intellectual property argument that is at the core of the controversy. The thing is that the intellectual property isn't technically being stolen. To steal intellectual property, by definition, it has to be plagiarized, or copied and passed off as your own. Sometimes songs are improperly attributed because it seems an overwhelming majority of people on file-sharing networks are teenagers or fucktards, with no real discernable way of differentiating the two, but I have never seen a Rolling Stones song passed off as the original work of "JuicyAss72" on KaZaa. The worst that happens is that everything slightly humorous is attributed to "Weird Al" Yankovic, every new wave song is attributed to U2, and every industrial metal song is automatically Rammstein.

The bottom line is that, on file-sharing networks, people are generally not claiming ownership over your intellectual properties. The worst they're doing is claiming it's someone else's, in which case a bunch of idiots will end up being really embarrassed if they open their cockhole in public without taking the five seconds to use Google to verify their information.

I have a bunch of cartoon characters that I designed. I'm waiting until I can get them properly protected before I reveal them to the general public, however, because I wouldn't want them stolen. I fully understand that, when I eventually put them online, they may eventually get a cult following who will learn to draw them, make fan art, and put them through all sorts of deviant sexual acts for the maturbatory gratification of perverts. I understand this, and I'm fine with it. I don't consider it stealing my characters if someone draws them having sex with each other and posts it on 4chan. However, I would consider it stealing if someone discovered them before I established them in my own series, attributed to me, and profited from their own interpretations of the characters I invented, and it would break my heart because they are my characters and in a very odd way, like, my children. It would be like someone else kidnapping my child and pretending to be its parent.

That's not the same thing that's happening with the copying of intellectual property over peer-to-peer file sharing networks, though. The music is still attributed to the band that created it, and it's generally traded amongst its fans for personal use, and it's not traded for profit, so it's not technically bootlegging, or "pirating." Thus, the RIAA is suing people who aren't making a profit for a perceived loss of something they never had to begin with. You cannot sue someone for losing money that you don't have but hope to one day get. If that's legal, then I'm filing a suit against every company that's ever denied my application for a lifetime of compensation that I would have gotten had I worked there. Morons.

If the RIAA wants to insist that it's losing the money that it thinks it should have, then maybe they should look into factors beyond online file sharing, like for instance putting out a product of such quality people would be obliged to pay for it. I will buy new albums from artists like Dead Soul Tribe, Pain of Salvation, Simple Minds, Devin Townsend, or Beck without question because I'm automatically guaranteed it'll be worth my money. Most of the people who share music online, believe it or not, actually are music fans, who do support the industry. These are people who promote music they believe to be good to the uninitiated. Many of these people download to weed out the pretentious crap out there, and they will buy the music they believe is worthwhile. These are people who buy band merchandise and go to live shows, which directly benefit the band far more than buying a CD, which goes primarily to the record companies.

Record companies are an archaic middle-figure making a large profit off the hard work of talented and creative individuals. These companies run a multi-billion dollar talent industry without possessing any of the talent they make their profit from. Sure, they offer promotional and protection services for the artists they represent, and the fact that they buy the intellectual rights from the artists means they have a vested interest in protecting the property they've bought. However, there have been other organizations in the history of America that offered promotional and protection services to their clients through bullying tactics. Did I just compare the RIAA to the Mafia? Well, just because the law allows, or at least ignores, the existence of certain gray areas does not necessarily make the comparison less valid.

I have to wonder, myself, when it's all said and done, when the RIAA wins a high-profile lawsuit against a middle-class teenager for allowing downloading from her computer, how much of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they won actually goes to the artists whose songs they assert were stolen. My guess is not much. I think I'd try to include as a stipulation in the judgment that all of the money after lawyer and court costs would go to the artists, and if any went to the record companies the judgment would be rendered void. After all, somewhere along the line the record company got their money for the CD that the song had been ripped from, which theoretically ends their obligation. Considering how much the artist makes from the average CD sale, most of that money is going to the record label anyway. If the battle is truly for intellectual property, then the bulk of the money should go to the artist that created the intellectual property, and not the representative.

File sharing may or may not be considered theft, despite the fact that it doesn't fit any of the established, traditional definitions of theft, but record companies taking more money from the people who engage in it than their property is reasonably worth, that is theft. And the law lets them get away with it.

(Standard Disclaimer: Note that nowhere in this did I claim any criminal culpability. I just like pointing out logical flaws.)

np: Devin Townsend - "Thing Beyond Things"


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