Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Moral Issue (Part 2 of 8)

This is an article in a series. You may read all the articles by clicking here.

If you’re still in the Universal Morality Camp of, "Nope, it’s morally wrong, it’s theft, pirates should be banned from the internet and you’ll never convince me otherwise," then let me offer you some historical perspective on how the Morality card has been used in the past:

Below is a list of wars or warring factions, and their "immoral" actions:

  • The Battle of Agincourt—the French viewed the British longbows as unchivalrous
  • Hashshashins—the first Muslim suicide assassins, and highly effective
  • Ninjas—Samuraii warriors considered ninjas dishonorable in part because ninjas’ blades were sharpened on both sides (as opposed to a samuraii’s one-sided blade)
  • The American Revolution—the Brits thought the Americans' guerilla warfare was dishonorable
  • Vietnam—the Viet Cong intentionally left wounded soldiers in the field to lure out and kill rescuers
  • The US Civil War—sniping was considered dishonorable and they rarely survived capture
  • The Algerian War—kidnapping, ritual murder and mutilation were all used to weaken the French occupying force
  • Al Qaeda & The Iraqi insurgency—suicide bombs killing innocent civilians are deemed immoral

In each case, the winning side or faction used more efficient fighting methods typically described (by the losing side) as "unfair", "unethical", "dishonorable", etc. In the early examples, it's obvious that what was once thought of as unchivalrous, dishonorable, immoral or unethical—i.e., longbows, guerilla warfare, sniping—is now widely accepted and used as a standard tool of warfare, even seen as ethically sound. Thankfully, we haven't gone so far as to embrace kidnapping, mutilation and ritual murder as commonplace tools in our wartime arsenal (at least not publicly; waterboarding is considered torture, so I suppose it's possible we're slowly leaning in that direction... ah, but I digress).

Many things we first think of as immoral and unethical are re-evaluated and often downgraded in the longer lens of history. Losers of any conflict are often heard complaining, "How could we have possibly won that war when our opponents were doing 'X'?", where 'X' is any of the above. In the Battle of Agincourt, the French outnumbered the British more than 4 to 1 but they refused to use longbows because they thought longbows were unchivalrous/unethical/immoral/unfair. If the French had only set aside their obstinate righteousness and accepted that longbows were a vastly more efficient weapon, they would have crushed the British. Instead, they became preoccupied with longbows as an unethical, unchivalrous and dishonorable weapon... and they lost.

I see this same head-in-the-sand attitude crop up in strikes. When unions go on strike, they are typically protesting a new and more efficient system that threatens their jobs. Case in point: 1984's Wapping Dispute saw British typesetters going on strike to protest the newer, more efficient desktop publishing systems. Instead of embracing the future by adapting to change on their own terms, career typesetters were forced to adapt on someone else's terms by accepting the unavoidable truth that newer DTP systems were more efficient than old typesetting methods. Yes, many people lost their jobs and it was an extremely sad chapter for all career typesetters. I'm sure all the old typesetters even thought of the new DTP systems as "unfair" and perhaps even "dishonorable", but the newer and more efficient DTP systems benefited everyone. In the end, nobody ended up caring what was unfair or dishonorable—the only thing that mattered was how efficient the system ending up being.

We’re faced with a similar situation with Peer-to-Peer networks like eDonkey, Limewire, and BitTorrent. Even after years of increasingly harsher laws and incessant moral reproaches, P2P networks continue to flourish unabated and now have representatives in Sweden's Pirate Party (if that isn't a signal of a neverending battle, I don't know what is). In my eye, then, the moral and legal arguments against piracy are becoming moot—what becomes important is recognizing why P2P networks are still so popular despite all the moral and legal roadblocks.

Two things have become clear to me:
  1. Compared to current distribution channels, P2P networks are an astonishingly efficient distribution method. Consumers want content and they want it now. Should they walk/drive down to the movie theatre or video store, or sit at home and watch it on their desktop computer? Increasingly, it is the latter. This has affected theatrical releases: desperate to see a movie because of its massive marketing campaign, consumers scramble online to find a leaked version. Their goal is not necessarily to watch something for free (though that can be a bonus), but to watch it now. If producers/distributors provided a convenient and low-cost option to fill that market need, I assure you that piracy would fade away, but producers/distributors are (understandably) too committed to defending the status quo of the Old Model's staggered release windows. Despite what producers and distributors want the world to be, the New Model is give-it-to-me-now-or-i-will-take-it-from-you-anyway. Of course, producers and distributors have their livelihoods to defend, and they will defend it with vitriol, but they can’t make P2P file sharing any less efficient—the genie is out of the bottle.
  2. Overall, both consumers and producers are better off with P2P network distribution. When consumers watch content, they get it now. When producers have their content watched now, consumers talk about it to their friends and that's free publicity. Even if the movie is downloaded for free, other income streams can/should make up the difference, e.g., George Lucas made more money off Star Wars merchandise than he did off his movies. While music CD sales may be declining because of piracy, the music business overall has grown because more people are listening to more music as a result of piracy. As Jamin Winans of Ink said about the 400,000 BitTorrent downloads of his film, "...I don't see it as lost revenue, but fans gained."

This article is part of a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Free. You may read the entire articles by clicking here, or the other articles here:
The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Free: An Introduction

The Free Debate:
  1. Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson
  2. PRICED TO SELL: Is Free the Future? by Malcolm Gladwell
  3. Dear Malcolm: Why so Threatened? by Chris Anderson
  4. Malcolm is Wrong by Seth Godin
  5. Free vs. Freely Distributed by Mark Cuban
  6. Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell And A Look At Free by Michael Masnick
  7. Freemium and Freeconomics by Fred Wilson

The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Free:
  1. OK, it's wrong... so what?
  2. The Moral Issue
  3. Feedback from Pirates: A Case Study
  4. Digital Theft, Oxymoron
  5. It's All Fixed
  6. Creating Value
  7. The Way Out
  8. The Key is Generatives
  9. Acknowledgments & Further Reading

No comments: