Nothing makes me quite so weepy as when traditional media outlets attempt to tackle the Internet and its attendant legal and social issues. New York Times columnist David Carr tries his best with SOPA – a very real existential threat to the Internet and whatever democracy may otherwise look like in a digital world. Unfortunately, he starts right off by conceding the issue that SOPA is nominally meant to address: online piracy:
A NONEXISTENT PROBLEM? Hardly. Regardless of what Web evangelists tell you, SOPA is an effort to get at the very real problem of rogue Web sites — most operating from overseas — offering illicit downloads of movies, music and more. The Motion Picture Association of America cites figures saying that piracy costs the United States $58 billion annually.
Mark Elliot, an executive from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to The New York Times that such piracy threatened 19 million American jobs. Those figures surely include some politically motivated hyperbole, but anybody who has spent time around a twentysomething consumer knows that piracy is a thorny fact of life for content companies.
The “very real” problem of online piracy is apparently not so very real that he can find any numbers to cite that don’t come from the protagonists of this fight. He concedes that the numbers must “surely include some politically motivated hyperbole,” but he does little to dispute the point or offer an countervailing evidence. So allow me:
The concept of online piracy costing $X and Y jobs is predicated on the notion that the person who downloaded a media file for free would also have paid for it. This flies in the face of some very basic market theory, doesn’t it?
Real-world supply and demand economics say that the cost of an item, its availability and a customer’s desire for it are all related. Lower prices make items more desirable, wider availability drives prices downward. Perhaps if more downloads are happening on freebie sources, the reason is that the recording industry has typically had an outsized price point?
But “cost” is about more than just price. There is also convenience, reliability, comfort. That’s why people will pay more to shop at Wegmans: even if the price may certainly be lower at other stores, people just find Wegmans comfortable and convenient.
I don’t think any rational person can say that “pirate” download sites are any of those things. There’s nothing particularly user-friendly about downloading movies, for example: they take forever to download, require arcane software to compile and are typically buggy downloads in the first place. This is on top of the paranoia of possibly downloading a virus – a paranoia whose proportion is inverse to one’s computer literacy – and the frustration of finding that a download was mislabeled and you didn’t even get what you wanted.
Like any good geek, I have certainly checked out my fair share of free download tools, from newsgroup downloads in the day to Napster to ThePirateBay.org. Ultimately, I find myself relying on Spotify, Turntable and NetFlix instead because the hassle of free downloads is hardly worth it.
Aristotle is quoted somewhere as having said that “music dies as its born.” While the painter ends his toils with a painting, an architect with blueprints, musicians have nothing to show for it once a note is done ringing out. The music industry – and the movie industry as well – has always been and will for the rest of its existence, always be an abstraction. One that makes it possible to sell a physical item from an intangible profession.
But ownership is now largely irrelevant. And the only nominally-redeeming quality of SOPA is to force the irrelevant to be relevant. At what cost?