Carrying On: A pirate’s life for me

February 2, 2012

In the war against online copyright infringement, the Stop Online Piracy Act—better known as the reason you couldn’t use Wikipedia two weeks ago—represents something in between a scorched earth policy and the Death Star’s destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars. The problem with the bill is that its definition of piracy is so general, and its enforcement mechanisms so extreme, that it could require the shutdown of large swaths of the Internet (including pretty much any site with user-generated content). Under SOPA, everyone would be a pirate.

But for everything that’s horribly wrong with SOPA (and there’s a lot), there’s one thing it gets right—we, indeed, are all pirates.

If the SOPA blackouts on January 18 represented the Internet’s potentially dystopian future, the Justice Department’s shutdown of Megaupload the next day epitomized its uneasy present. The massively popular file-sharing site had always operated in morally ambiguous territory—anyone could upload anything without screening, and if it just so happened that people chose to upload every popular movie, television show, and music album, so be it.

The Justice Department, however, determined that Megaupload wasn’t really indiscriminate when it came to content, but rather that it allegedly encouraged the sharing of pirated materials. So the company’s network of sites was summarily taken down, and some of its top employees were arrested and indicted on charges of copyright infringement and conspiracy.

Megaupload’s founders claim their innocence. And it is possible to argue that Megaupload is a legitimate service for people looking to share personal recordings or back-up files, and the pirates are an unfortunate group who chooses to abuse it. On the other hand, innocent men usually don’t hole up in a panic room next to a sawed-off shotgun when the police come to take them into custody.
And according to New Zealand police, Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom did just that. Dotcom is an extraordinary person for many reasons—his peculiar choice in vanity license plates, his penchant for changing his name, his ability to become the world’s number one player in Modern Warfare 3 while running a $100 million business-cum-criminal conspiracy—but despite his eccentricities I can’t help but see him as an extreme example of the typical internet user.

It’s almost impossible to use the Internet, at least for recreational purposes, without engaging in or witnessing some form of copyright infringement. Of course, it varies in degree—unknowingly watching a YouTube video featuring an unlicensed song is different from seeking out an illegal stream of an NFL game, and both seemingly pale in comparison to uploading a bootleg of The Grey to Megavideo—but to some extent, everybody’s doing it, and more than that, it’s almost impossible not to be aware that you are doing it.

I don’t think it’s a bold statement to say that piracy is bad. There’s an argument to be made that free availability of content can have positive side effects—someone listens to a band they never would have otherwise and ends up buying a concert ticket—but it’s a flimsy one. If someone owns something and says they want you to pay for it, you don’t really have the authority to take it and tell the owner they’ll be better off in the long run.

Of course, everybody knows this, and piracy is still rampant. There’s a little Kim Dotcom in all of us. Unless he never used his own website, Dotcom knew that Megaupload was filled with copyrighted material, but he found a tenuous argument to justify, at least in his mind, what was essentially a piracy emporium. The average Internet user’s engagement with copyright infringement isn’t nearly as large or direct, but we still have our own way of rationalizing—“I’ll buy a concert ticket,” or “I wasn’t going to pay to watch this movie anyway.”

The problem, though, is that the prevalence of piracy is as much a product of market failure as of corrupted morality. As much as the supporters of SOPA would like to make it happen, we can’t just reset the clock back to 1995. The Internet will make content readily available for free, and that’s nearly impossible to directly compete with. Business models have to change, whether it’s fair or not. Subscription services like Netflix and Spotify, which get users to pay for convenience as much as content, are part of the solution, but there’s no way to get around the loss of value. A CD used to cost $20. Now, for $10 per month, you can access more music than you could listen to in a lifetime.

I’m still searching for a personal solution, and all I know is that it’s not found at the extremes. I’m all for protecting copyrights, but SOPA is a draconian law that would do more harm than good. At the other end of the spectrum, if you think the efforts of Kim Dotcom and his ilk are noble, you must either be an anarchist or desperate to catch up on Homeland. In the latter case, I feel your pain. I may not be able to resist the temptation either, but if I can’t, I’ll at least feel bad about it.

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