With the well-deserved drama over SOPA and its sister bill, which are akin to taking a nuke to the web so an organization of huge content producers can protect their business model, Matthew Yglesias decided to make an impassioned defense of online piracy, arguing that it’s actually good to have a little of it because not every download means a lost sale and a number of these illegal downloads could translate into paying customers down the line. While it’s certainly true that a million illegal downloads of a $0.99 track doesn’t mean a loss for the studio that released it to the tune of $1 million, and it’s possible that a few thousand people who decided to download the track not because they knew the artist but didn’t want to pay but because it was free, went out and bought more of the artist’s music in the future, this odd logical calculus forgets about those who will only download because they don’t want to spend any cash. And while this seems like an omission, Yglesias’ leap of logic in positing that illegal downloads actually generate money gets truly bizarre in this example…
[E]ven when copyright infringement does lead to real loss of revenue to copyright owners , it’s not as if the money vanishes into a black hole. Suppose Joe Downloader uses BitTorrent to get a free copy of Beggars Banquet rather than forking over $7.99 to Amazon, and then goes out to eat some pizza. In this case, the Rolling Stones’ loss is the pizzeria’s gain and Joe gets to listen to a classic album. It’s at least not obvious that we should regard this, on balance, as harmful.
Why would we even regard this as a balance? The Rolling Stones are in music because it’s a business. The music they create is what pays their bills. Declaring that because they’re rich, they must’ve had enough and it would be just fine to pirate it (as many downloaders do) and spending money on pizza while getting the work they did for free, is not a balance. No one from the local pizza place is going to give the Rolling Stones a cut of the profits made on selling to Joe or Jane Downloader unless they own the pizza places in question. It’s very doubtful that Yglesias actually wants to say that it’s ok to download whatever you want as long as you spend a few bucks on a snack while you enjoy your pirated acquisition, but that is indeed what he seems to be saying and by the same logic, we could say that’s perfectly fine to download his book rather than buy it as long as we pay a visit to the grocery store after we do and get something for dinner between reading the result of months and months of his work. I’m sure he intended the proceeds from the book to be used to pay his mortgage and take his family on vacation, but hey, it’s ok. The money he doesn’t get will be spent elsewhere, right?
One of the big problems with the attitude that we should be able to download what we want because we want to and the content owners will often act like bullies, is that it opens the door to abuse. New artists trying to get into the entertainment industry have their efforts pirated and even though the downloaders praise them for an innovative or well executed song or movie, these artists don’t see a dime and never get on the radar of major corporations that could make them new household names. As a result, piracy perpetuates the status quo, the sequel, the remake, and the rehash along with an online entitlement culture which says that because of bad business habits or bad faith on the part of the content owners, you are now entitled to have whatever you want for free. Just try that with a nasty car dealer and see how far you’ll get with declaring that the car you wanted to buy is too expensive and the dealer is too shady, therefore you’ll be taking it free of charge. You’d expect to end up in jail of course. But in the digital world, this kind of behavior seems to be tolerated. And come to think of it, if music and movies today are all crap, why do you even want to download them in the first place? Why not let the studios and labels release crap and fail because no one buys it or listens to it? Surely we’d be able to get something new and exciting made or produced then, something worth paying to see and hear.