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When record companies make a fuss about the danger of "piracy", they're not talking about violent attacks on shipping. What they complain about is the sharing of copies of music, an activity in which millions of people participate in a spirit of cooperation. The term "piracy" is used by record companies to demonize sharing and cooperation by equating them to kidnaping, murder and theft.
Copyright was set up after the printing press made copying a matter of mass production, typically done commercially. Copyright was acceptable in that technological context because it functioned as an industrial regulation, not restricting readers or (later) music listeners.
In the 1890s, record companies began selling mass-produced musical recordings. These records facilitated the enjoyment of music, and did nothing to interfere with listening to music. Copyright on these musical recordings was mostly uncontroversial as it only restricted record companies and not music listeners.
Today's digital technology enables everyone to make and share copies. Record companies now seek to use copyright law to deny us the use of this technical advance. The law which was acceptable when it restricted only publishers is now an injustice because it forbids cooperation among citizens.
To stop people from sharing goes against human nature, and the Orwellian propaganda that "sharing is theft" usually falls on deaf ears. It appears the only way to stop people from sharing is with a harsh War on Sharing. Thus the record companies, through their legal arms such as the RIAA, sue teenagers for hundreds of thousands of dollars for sharing. Meanwhile, corporate conspiracies to restrict public access to technology have developed systems of Digital Restrictions Management, designed to handcuff users and make copying impossible. Examples include iTunes as well as DVDs and Blueray disks. (See DefectiveByDesign.org for more information.) Although these conspiracies operate in restraint of trade, governments systematically fail to prosecute them.
Sharing continues despite these measures; the human impulse to cooperate is strong. Therefore, the record companies and other publishers demand ever nastier measures to castigate sharers. The US passed a law in October 2008 to seize computers used for forbidden sharing. The European Union is considering a directive to cut off Internet service for people who have been accused (not convicted) of sharing; see laquadrature.net if you want to help oppose it. New Zealand in 2008 already adopted such a law.
At a recent film conference I heard a proposal to require people to prove their identity to gain access to the Internet; such monitoring would also help crush dissent and democracy. China has announced such a policy for Internet cafes; will the EU be next? An MP in the UK proposed to imprison people for ten years for sharing. This has not been adopted — yet. Meanwhile, in Mexico, children are being invited to report their own parents, Soviet style, for unauthorized copying. It seems there is no limit to the cruelty that the copyright industry will propose for its War on Sharing.
The record companies' main argument for forbidding sharing is that it causes the "loss" of jobs. This claim turns out to be pure guesswork (1). But even if they were true, they would not justify the War on Sharing. Should we forbid people to clean their own homes to avoid "loss" of janitorial jobs? Forbid people to cook for themselves, or forbid sharing of recipes, to avoid the "loss" of restaurant jobs? Such arguments are absurd because the "cure" is more profoundly harmful than the "disease".
The record companies also claim that sharing music takes money away from musicians. This is the sort of half-truth that is worse than a lie — except the level of truth in it is much less than half.
Even if we accept their supposition that, if you had not downloaded some music, you would have bought a copy of the same music — usually false, but occasionally true — it is only if the musicians are long-established superstars that they would get any money from your purchase. The record companies bully musicians at the start of their careers into exploitative contracts that bind them for 5 or 7 albums. It is almost unheard of for a record published under the scope of these contracts to sell enough copies that the musicians get a cent from sales. For more details, see this link. Long-established superstars aside, sharing only reduces the income that record companies use to sue music lovers.
As for the few musicians whose contracts do not exploit them, the long-established superstars, it is no special problem for society or music if they get a little less rich. There is no justification for the War on Sharing. We, the public, should put an end to it.
Some argue that the record companies will never succeed in stopping people from sharing, that it cannot be done (2). Given the asymmetric strengths of record company lobbyists and music lovers, I mistrust predictions of who will win in this war; in any case, underestimating the enemy is folly. We must assume that either side can win and the outcome depends on us.
Besides, even if the record companies never succeed in crushing human cooperation, they cause much misery just by trying, and intend to cause more. Rather than allow them to pursue the War on Sharing until they admit it is futile, we must stop them as soon as possible. We must legalize sharing.
Some say the networked society has no more use for record companies. I do not support that position. I will never pay for a music download until the day I can do that anonymously, so I want to be able to buy CDs anonymously in a record store. I do not wish for the elimination of record companies in general, but I will not give up my freedom to keep them going.
The purpose of copyright — on musical recordings, or anything else — is simple: to encourage writing and art. That's a desirable goal, but there are limits to what it can justify. Stopping people from sharing noncommercially is just too much. If we wish to promote music in the age of computer networks, we must choose methods that fit in with what we want to do with music, and that includes sharing.
Here are several suggestions for what we could do:
We could support musical artists with public funds distributed directly to them in proportion to the cube root of their popularity. Using the cube root means that if superstar A is 1000 times as popular as skilled artist B, A will get 10 times as much of the tax funds as B. This way of dividing the money is an efficient way to promote a broad diversity of music.
The law should ensure that record companies cannot confiscate these funds from the artists, since experience shows they will try. To speak of "compensating" the "rights holder" is a veiled way of proposing to give most of the money to the record companies in the name of the artists.
These funds could come from the general budget, or from a special tax on something vaguely correlated with listening to music, such as blank disks or Internet connectivity. Either way would do the job.
The Mécénat Global is a partly similar plan.
Support artists with voluntary payments. This is already working fairly well for some artists, including Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails and Jane Siberry (sheeba.ca), even using inconvenient systems that require the purchaser to have a credit card.
If any music lover could pay easily with digital cash, if each music player had a button you could push to send one euro to the artists that made the piece you listened to, wouldn't you push it occasionally, perhaps once a week? Only the poor and the very stingy would refuse.
You may have other good ideas. Let's support musicians, and let's legalize sharing.
1. See this article, but beware its use of the propaganda term "intellectual property", which spreads confusion by lumping together unrelated laws. See this link for why it is never good to use that term.
2. See the-future-of-copyright.
Copyright 2009 Richard Stallman
This article is released under the Creative Commons Attribution Noderivs license version 3.0.