When I wrote a column two weeks ago on alternative means of procuring textbooks, I didn’t think much about the now obvious message – that it’s OK to pirate your textbooks. Let the record show here that I don’t envision myself to be a New Age Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, calling for digital civil disobedience en masse. Instead, the message was more of a reflex, in the sense that so many people take part in digital piracy, it just made sense to write to it. This week’s column takes a step back, giving due diligence to a currently illegal behavior.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has gone great lengths to convince the government that we need tougher laws on digital piracy. They frequently take file-sharing companies and unlucky individuals to court, making an example of their choices by slapping huge fines and threatening jail-time. In these cases, the RIAA rightly claims that digital piracy costs the industry money. Some studies estimate that the entertainment industry has forfeited 20 percent of their bottom line to piracy.
But the RIAA takes these numbers further. They claim that losses in the entertainment industry weigh down related industries (think: everything in Best Buy) that ultimately make up six percent of the country’s total economic output. The RIAA would have you believe that your illegally downloaded copy of Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” is the root of the Great Recession.
Whenever the issue of digital piracy arises, the discourse is inundated and hijacked by the dangers and costs of illegal downloading. If there is to be a productive debate about the issue, it is just as important to consider the benefits (yes, they exist) of piracy.
Primarily, digital piracy has benefited the entertainment industry. You read correctly – the industry itself stands to gain from consumers downloading music and movies. Because downloading drives down the profit of media sales, the industry is tasked with changing the media experience into something that cannot be downloaded. You can download Lady GaGa’s latest album, but try downloading her Monster’s Ball Tour. There’s a difference between watching a video of her singing on stage and the physical experience of getting splashed with fake blood because you’re next to the stage. There’s a difference between watching a copy of Avatar you downloaded, and your columnist having a seizure 20 minutes into the Avatar IMAX 3D Experience (true story). Each of these experiences bring the industry more profit per purchase than record sales or regular movie tickets.
Second, digital piracy does not reduce the profit of the entertainment industry so much as it deflates an overblown bubble of nonsensical earning margins. There is something bothersome about entertainers not only making more money than doctors or teachers or firefighters, but making twenty-fold the salary of any service-based profession. Piracy will never reduce pop stars to panhandlers, but it brings them a little closer to our level. Now if only we could pirate football players.
Piracy expands our music bubbles. Back when you had to throw down cash to buy CDs, you probably held some reservation. After all, you couldn’t buy everything that tickled your fancy. Instead, the best decision was to go safe – purchase an artist that you knew was good and avoid the risk of wasting money on a new sound. Because downloading music reduces the purchase to nil, it also reduces the risk in listening to new music. As such, we get music from our friends, share music with them as well, and seek out new artists, genres and even ages in music. Digital piracy gives us the opportunity to take a chance on music.
There’s an argument on the side of the entertainment industry claiming that the profit-shrinking nature of downloading will reduce the incentive of new artists to produce media. After all, why strive to become the next best rapper if that means making less than minimum wage? This is not necessarily an issue. Contrary to popular misconception, not all artists are in it for the money. Some have to work day jobs, sure, but their passion comes alive with music. Maybe I’m out of line, but I’d rather listen to an artist in it for the art and not the money.
Digital piracy is a complicated subject. Remember, though, that the potential benefit to digital piracy is not a warrant to break the law. The law is what it is. If there is a kind of warped civil disobedience in digital piracy, it comes not from breaking the law, but challenging its myths.
Email RAJIV NARAYAN your thoughts at email@example.com. Just don’t e-mail him your music.