Wednesday, December 09, 2009

OK, it's wrong... so what? (Part 1 of 8)

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

Gladwell makes some excellent points, and eloquently, but I feel he misses the larger picture. Ethically, I feel file sharing is wrong, so I actually agree with Gladwell. I don't want to gloss over this point, so I'll belabor it: I am not a feverish file sharer defending my own lifestyle of piracy. I don't pirate "because everyone else is doing it." In fact, I never even used the Pirate Bay.

Not only is piracy unethical, it's also illegal. Yet the legality of an action does not in itself infer moral purity—"law-abiding citizens" have committed morally repugnant actions, including slavery and the Holocaust. If everyone always obeyed the law, slavery would still exist, America would never have been founded (if you think America wasn't founded on piracy, go brush up on the etymology of the word "Yankee"), and Hollywood wouldn’t have existed. History has fun portraying leaders of a rebellion as either heroes or outlaws depending on the outcome of the conflict in question and the point of view of the current government. For instance, we aren’t taught to see the Founding Fathers as violent criminals yet, from the 18th century British perspective, that is exactly what they were: if Benjamin Franklin had been caught, he'd have been swiftly executed for “betraying his country”. Thus, the mere fact of disobeying a law is not enough to draw a morally righteous condemnation—one must also commit an act that does more harm than good.

No matter how much I agree with Gladwell, and how morally wrong I may think file sharing is, I also see piracy as the way of the future, a genie out of the bottle which has the potential to foster a more vibrant entertainment industry if we can all simply accept digital file sharing as the key innovative tool of The Digital Age. I'm aware of how contradictory that may sound. On the one hand, I'm admonishing file sharing: file sharing is (usually) taking content from producers without permission. On the other hand, I look at all the unexpected benefits that come with file sharing and I have to ask myself whether all the ethical and legal jangles are trumping a fantastically new technological innovation.

When you examine the practicalities of the exchange of goods—meaning, are all parties better or worse off when content is pirated?—ethics and legalities become irrelevant. File sharing continues to thrive because producers and distributors are not yet providing en masse a service the market is starving for: convenience at a low cost. iTunes makes money selling content that anyone can get for free... Spotify in the UK is starting to do the same. So obviously, the market is still willing to pay money for content if it's convenient and inexpensive enough. If it's too inconvenient or too expensive, the market will pirate. People won't pay $35 for a DVD, but they'll download it first to see if it's worth the money (and if it isn't, they won't bother paying for it). They won't pay $25 for a CD, but they'll download a few tracks to see if they like them (and if they do, they may even get more tracks on iTunes). Perhaps they download all their music and never pay a dime... but they will enthusiastically pay for merchandise and live concerts of that musician.

Money can still be made in this new “freemium” economy... we all just have to start accepting that morality, ethics and legality are not the core principles determining whether piracy will starve or thrive. Sure, piracy is wrong, but so what? People are still pirating content. Britain is trying to ban users from the internet, but if banning users succeeds in stopping them from pirating, it still won't get them to buy more music... and isn't that the whole idea?

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

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