A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Ethicist tackled a question about the ethics associated with downloading an “illegal” digital copy of a book that was already owned. It can be read here:
It's an interesting question that spurred a flurry of comments on various websites and blogs, most of which were outside the scope of the original inquiry. The question posed was very specific – Is it ethical to download a bootleg of a book that you already own the hard copy of? The answer advanced by the ethicist was equally straightforward - Ethically, it was acceptable.
As downloading continues to erode the traditional avenues of media distribution, it's completely understandable that the industries and content creators that rely on revenues generated from it are wary of what the future holds. The analog containers (books, newspapers, record albums, video tapes, etc) that once defined the legitimate distribution of most media constituted an “original” of sorts, while bootleg copies of that original were most often inferior in quality and therefore less desirable. The analog to digital revolution of the last 2 decades has inadvertently changed all that. A perfect copy of any digital original is now not only possible, but relatively simple and cheap to do. In what must be one of the most colossal industrial missteps ever, the cost and time saving techniques associated with digital production and storage were quickly co-opted by the public and the rest is history. The media industry lost control of its product and they're never going to get it back.
The rise of digital copying coincided with (and/or perhaps contributed to) a significant societal change that occurred over roughly the same 20 year period. I could drone on about the scope and nature of these changes (and did in an earlier draft), suffice it to say that there seems to exist a sense of entitlement amongst the population that wasn't as pronounced a generation ago. One of the ways this new-found entitlement mantra manifests itself is the presumption that free access to intellectual property has become not only a right, but is very nearly not even a consideration any more. Paying for access to read, listen or view media via the traditional and decidedly old-fashioned à-la-carte purchase model has rapidly disappeared and in its place is a new and very different distribution network. Downloading is a product of this recent media metamorphosis and at its core, the issue is a complex combination of technological, legal and ethical considerations.
It must first be said that the same basic arguments are advanced nearly every time the issue of downloading and file-sharing comes up. As a result, the rhetoric has become harder to cut through. On the one side, people suggest that they are finally able to stick it to the man and just take what they want without lining the pockets of greedy corporate middle men. On the other, poor starving artists are being stolen from and relegated to the economic dustbin as a result. Both positions are overly simplistic, self-serving and offer nothing in the way of any real analysis or a path forward. Truth be told, no one is downloading to make a bold politic statement, they just want something for nothing. Whether this act is “stealing” is a purely a legal technicality. Whether it's ethical, however, is not. The act of downloading without compensation to the creators of what you're taking is unequivocally unethical. It undermines a basic tenant of our collective social contract and just because everyone does it, doesn't make it any less so. While it may be true that the media industry often shafted the public with endless format changes and overpriced product in the past, this is a classic example of two wrongs not making a right.
Ethical considerations aside, downloading is here to stay. As Generation Free increasingly comes to represent the demographic that consumes the most media, they're just not buying into the buying concept. On any number of levels, it also makes perfect sense. Digital media is portable, accessible and multi-format. It has served to expand the availability of formerly hard-to-get and marginal creative works. It uses less resources that traditional media product and packaging, although I don't know if the collective ecological costs of 5 billion computers, cell phones and iPads don't eclipse any environmental savings that might come from not pressing CD's or printing newspapers anymore. The upsides are a broader mix of alternative music, film, and reading and I can attest to seeing it's effect on what the young people in my circle listen to and watch. Previous generations plowed through record bins for countless hours over years to find a mere handful of great unknown tunes and bands. You can do the same thing in an evening at your computer now.
It seems that a strange thing happens when you move a creative work into the digital realm. Apparently, the concept and perceptions of intellectual property and “ownership” changes. The same considerations that keep us from wandering into our neighbour's house and taking their toaster-oven simply don't seem to apply when a creatively owned and licensed work finds its way online. Perhaps the idea of something that can be infinitely copied in identical form nullifies the esoteric concept of creative ownership anyways. It stands to reason that where an original doesn't really exist (at least in any traditional, tactile sense), the idea that a series of computer files floating around in cyberspace being owned by someone becomes very difficult to rationalize and just as easily discounted. The problem arises once all the revenue associated with the creation and distribution of that work dry up - who then pays the artists, technicians and distribution networks that rely on the old model? It might be entirely possible for music to go from a non-commodity (prior to the advent of analog recording technologies) to a commodity (once recordings became available to purchase) and back to a non-commodity (because Generation Free has no interest in paying for it) in the space of about 80 years.
Which brings us to our connection to all this industry upheaval. As most of you that read (and all that post on) this blog are indirectly employed as a result of the limitations placed on the use of copyrighted material, this issue relates to all of us in a real and direct way. Plainly put, the rise of downloading and illegal copying has directly limited the amount of money you make at the Film Buff. As your compensation is dependent upon the profitability of the DVD rental business model, your income has been compromised in part by the losses incurred from downloading. It's as simple as that. It's not just authors, songwriters, actors and the corporate middle men that have suffered financially, you & I have. Our pricing has not kept pace with inflation because the market increasingly sees the DVD product we carry as freely obtainable, both financially and ethically. As a result, our income is static and the basic wages we pay float around the $10 to $12 level in 2010, barely above minimum wage. 10 years ago, those wages were $9 to $11 (at that time +/-25% higher than minimum wage), rising a mere 10% in a decade. As most of the Film Buff staff tend to stick around for a few years or less, this only matters in a general sense – retailing wages haven't moved much in other service industries either. The point I'm trying to make is those wages would have risen faster had the industry not plateaued and that has occurred, at least in part, because of the rise of downloading. We tend to think of our technological advances as being positive things, but there are times when those same advances undermine our abilities to earn a living.
I'm changing the last couple of paragraphs here because, as usual, I got off on a bit of a tangent bitching about things and missed coming to any particular point. I think it's safe to say the digital downloading, illegal or otherwise, is here to stay. Like all new technologies, there are both upsides and downsides associated with this new way of distributing information, specifically media in this case. The overriding downside from my perspective is the loss of value, at least in the eyes of the consumer, for nearly all creative works that exist in the digital domain and an increasing disinterest in paying for access to those works. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, “free” access begets all sorts of good and democratic distribution of media, but if we have adopted a economy where “information” in the thing we are expected to ply our trade at, and it isn't deemed worthy of being paid for, where does that leave our opportunities going forward? Apple Computer generates most of its revenues selling hardware not software and the implications of that business model is spreading into other industries, including our own. 70 years ago, anti-trust legislation was levied against movie studios because they owned both the product (ie: the films) and the venues where that product was sold (the theatres). The government made them pick one or the other. One wonders how long it might be before we begin to catch on that Apple and companies like it, are doing very much the same thing today and the result is undermining the economic conditions needed for the creation of new works. Somehow we've been coerced into believing that the hardware, not the creative work itself is the more worthy investment and that's kinda sad, if you ask me.