Jason Robert Brown debates rationalization of theft
Updated 7/6/2010 – Slashdot posted a great discussion on intellectual property from famous composer Jason Robert Brown. The debate highlights the divide between the rights owners and the rights violators. For composers, they’re struggling to communicate to the public that they have a right to make a living off of their creations. For content pirates, they go to great lengths to rationalize their own behavior.
A number of rationalizations made in comments to the Jason Robert Brown’s blog and the slashdot thread stuck out and I’ll debate some of them below. The rationalizations in favor of piracy boiled down to the following concepts.
“It’s rude to refuse copies for friends”
The girl named “Eleanor” that tried to defend her actions for stealing Mr. Brown’s sheet music made the case that she would consider it “nasty” to refuse making an illegal copy of sheet music for her friend. This is actually a very interesting point that needs to be addressed because the cultural reality is that it really is very uncomfortable to refuse making copies for friends. It puts a person in the awkward position of being a morality police officer and it is very uncomfortable to have to turn a friend down and essentially accuse them of being a thief.
This is one of the key reasons that legal enforcement and DRM are needed because it helps make it more socially acceptable to refuse. If a person is made aware of the illegality of distributing copies and it is technically difficult to make a copy, it’s far more socially acceptable for them to say “I don’t know how to make a copy” rather than “I refuse to give you a copy even though it can easily be done because it’s illegal”.
“We’re giving you great advertising so it’s OK to take your content”
The other common argument made to rationalize theft is that it is offset by the promotional value of having content more widely available. The problem with this line of reasoning is that if everyone anoints themselves as promoters and decides to pay themselves with a free copy of the content, then the promotional value is worthless because everyone is a “promoter” and no one is paying. It only works when the content owner has the sole right to appoint promoters.
“It’s the Internet dude, everyone does it”
More specifically, this argument basically says that because theft is so easy and so rampant and so difficult to enforce, then it is OK to steal. Well it’s easy to take candy from a baby or kid too but that doesn’t make it OK to do.
As for “everyone” doing it, that simply isn’t true. It is true that a lot of people (especially younger people who have to ask their parents for money) are stealing content, but not everyone is doing it. But the fact that so many people are doing it only highlights the severity of the problem. It’s like Tom and Joe both stole something and Tom argues that it’s OK because Joe did it tand then Joe arguing that it’s OK because Tom did it too. This is circular logic and it has no merit.
“The record labels aren’t paying the artists enough so we should also steal from the artists”
I think the title is kind of self explanatory, except those who make this argument phrase it in a much more marketable way. They argue that the record labels are stealing from the artists so it’s OK to then steal from the record labels. Except the fallacy of this logic is that it hurts the artists and workers that work for those record labels as well.
“Change your business model since you can’t stop piracy”
This is one of the more common arguments I hear and it even comes from some of the more conservative types. The fallacy of this argument is that the current business model still allows the artists to scrape by even if they’re suffering from piracy. There hasn’t really been a “free” or advertisement based business model that has been shown to be significantly profitable or even profitable at all. Those who argue for a change of business model can ignore this “minor detail”, but those whose livelihoods depend on copyright and the enforcement of it don’t have that luxury.
“Rich people shouldn’t be entitled to profits”
Most people who depend on copyrights probably aren’t rich and even if they are rich, it still doesn’t justify stealing from them. The word “profit” is thrown around as something evil but there really is no functional difference between profit and income. Denying someone of their greedy profit sounds righteous whereas denying someone their income sounds evil, but there is no difference.
“I can’t feel sorry for people with fancy MTV cribs”
See answer above.
“Only physical goods can be property”
The concept of property of any form was invented by society. Before the concept of property, a person’s ability to keep it depended on their own physical prowess. But even the strongest man in the tribe could be deprived of property by a pack of weaker men so the concept of law and property protected everyone. It makes no difference if property is physical or intellectual.
“Stealing a song or video isn’t the same as stealing physical property”
The argument is made that because a piece of content can be replicated at no expense to the creator, and that the replication of that content does not deny someone else possession of an item that was bought with money, it’s not stealing. The fallacy of this argument is that theft of a physical property deprives someone of past income, but theft of content deprives the creator of that content their future income.
Now we could argue that it’s not a 1:1 comparison because someone who downloaded $10,000 worth of content would never have bought that much content, but that person would have bought some content if he/she didn’t or couldn’t steal it. Even if we say the person would have only bought $1,000 of content had they not stolen $10,000 of content, they’ve still stolen $1,000 someone’s earned income. Aside from haggling over what fraction is theft, it is still theft.
“Just make society pay through taxes”
I talked about this before and we really need to ask ourselves if we want to start paying a tax on our computers and Internet access. It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you so do we really want the government doling out money to the artists and journalists.
“Today’s music is crap” [Added 8/30/2010]
If ever there was a good example of adding insult to injury, this would be one of them. When someone is willing to go to the trouble of stealing a song, it’s clear that they value it. But to call someone’s work “crap” and that it isn’t worth paying after stealing that person’s work is the ultimate slap in the face.
The fact of the matter is that there are very few geniuses in every generation. The music of the past that we know of are all good because they survived the test of time. The classics (not just classical music) are effectively a short list of the best music from past years and it’s difficult to compare the work of a few recent years to the classics.
My personal conclusion
First let me disclose that this conclusion is my personal opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of Digital Society or Arts & Labs.
A lot of people will have a problem accepting my arguments in favor of copyright enforcement because it conflicts with their own downloading habits and it potentially forces them to deal with guilt. But I’m not really trying to force people to feel guilty and I’m OK with it if they do *not* feel guilty. I would hope that people can switch to legal means after they consider the damage they are doing, but if they won’t stop downloading then I don’t want them to feel guilty. Guilt may force many people to rationalize their own behavior and drive them towards the free culture copyright abolitionist movement.
This is one of the few times that I would rather have people accept a position of hypocrisy if they must continue pirating content. A person could be in favor of fines for traffic violations while routinely speeding or running yellow-to-red lights and hoping that they don’t get caught. A person could be in favor of copyright laws and the enforcement of those laws while routinely violating them and hoping to avoid getting caught and fined. While this state of mind is far from ideal, at least it offers some kind of protection to the artists rather than the zero protection offered by the free culture alternative.