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May 18, 2009 / jadettman

File Sharing vs. Intellectual Property

What do you own that you can’t touch?

This isn’t a riddle but it is the crux of the File Sharing vs. Intellectual Property problem.

Intellectual Property is troublesome concept because it is hard to own ideas. They aren’t tangible, though their effects may be, and the only way to really prevent others from using your ideas is to keep them to yourself. How does that do you any good?

No, the real value of ideas is sharing them. As soon as you share an idea, though, it stops being ‘yours’ and suddenly becomes available to everyone. That is the great thing about ideas.

We, as a society, have several ways of protecting ideas with an eye toward encouraging people to continue having them but the big two are copyrights and patents.

Patents are all about encouraging research by allowing a patent holder sole use of an idea, usually a drug formula or technological innovation, for a limited period of time. This allows the patent holder to recoup the costs of their research and hopefully make enough profit for the whole thing to be worthwhile. This is one reason that we see new pharmeceuticals debuting all of the time and why they cost so much: the drug company has to cash in on their limited monopoly window while they can.

Copyright, leftwise, works in a similar way to patents but applies to creative works like books, movies, and music. Like a patent, copyright allows a creator to profit from their work for a limited amount of time to make the creation of that work worthwhile and to encourage people to create new works. In practice, the limits on copyright have become a little grey due to the efforts of corporate lobbys that want keep the money rolling in from older works, but that is a discussion for another time.

This system worked quite well in the past and, in fact, continues to work pretty well today. The speedbump in this process is the internet. Though, to be fair, it really started with the VCR.

Before the advent of the VCR, you had to watch television programs while they were airing. You just didn’t have any control over the situation. So, if you wanted to see the latest episode of The Tonight Show, you stayed up until midnight. For TV people and their advertisers this was great!

They had something you wanted to see, they told you when you could see it, and they decided what products they wanted you to buy, advertising appropriately.

Then, suddenly, you could record TV programs! Now you could watch The Tonight Show at 1pm the next day if you wanted and, wow, that was nice. Unfortunately, the people that made television didn’t like it but eventually they got used to the idea (you were probably still watching their commercials, after all) and the world went on its merry way.

Until someone invented the TiVo and let you skip commercials. Oh, the humanity! Then we got more product placement. Sigh.

Anyway, the internet is like a giant VCR that records everything (or soon will) and the overwhelming philosophy of the internet is about sharing.

Originally, the plan was to use the internet to share research between academics and scientists. Then someone opened the door to everyone else and we got personal homepages, blogs, forums, and social networks which are all about sharing yourself (and your stuff).

Then, someone invented peer-to-peer software and we started to get into the territory of share other people’s stuff.

Of course, this wasn’t all that unusual. Since the advent of recordable media, we’d been sharing other people’s stuff with our friends. That really cool album that you liked: recorded to cassette tape and given to your friend. That really cool television show: recorded to VHS and given to your friend. Even with books, once you finished a good one you could give it to your friend and let them enjoy it too.

The system was imperfect and slower than the internet but the same thing was going on. Right?

So, what’s the big fuss about sharing on the internet?

The first problem is that you don’t have a million friends. Before the internet made it easy to send a copy of something to anyone who wants it, you had a fairly limited number of people that you were going to share things with. According to sociologists, the largest social circles top out at around 150 people. Even if you had decided that every single one of those 150 people needed to read that awesome book it would take a while for that physical copy to make the rounds. If it was music, it would take you a fair amount of time to make 150 cassette recordings, not to mention the money involved. The odds, in both cases, are in favor of some of your 150 friends being impatient enough to go out and buy the book/album for themselves on your recommendation rather than wait for you to get them a copy.

Which brings us to our second problem: reproduction and degradation. It used to be that making a copy of music or video resulted in a degraded recording. So, if you made those 150 cassette recordings to pass out to all your friends, what you were passing around wasn’t as good as the original. It might have been good enough but, then, it might not and that would encourage your friends to, again, go get their own copy.

These two problems are the root of the file-sharing issue because the internet gives you a million ‘friends’ willing to share your files and allows you to create a perfect copy of any file on your computer and give it to whoever you like. Both the social and physical limitations of information sharing overcome with a machine that has become nearly ubiquitous in our society.

How many of the those million friends do you actually know, though? Could you ask any of them to loan you ten-bucks for lunch? Not too likely. Those million file-sharers aren’t on BitTorrent because they’re your friends, they just see a free lunch.

In most cases, the free lunch their getting isn’t yours, though, is it?

What I mean is: how does it hurt you to give someone else a perfect copy of a file that stays on your hard-drive? Answer: it doesn’t hurt you. You get to keep your copy and your million friends get their free copy, too.

If whatever is in that file was created by someone with the intent of selling it for profit, the only person harmed is the sucker that came up with the idea. Those are the kinds of suckers we like. After all, why would we want a copy of something if it wasn’t worth anything?



Leave a Comment
  1. Tommi / May 20 2009 11:12 am

    There’s as much as evidence for file sharing increasing sales as there is for it decreasing them.

    Further, there’s little evidence for arguing that patents and copyrights are actually beneficial to societies; at least patents slow down invention and people developing them further, as has been persuasively argued in the book Against intellectual monopoly (can be googled and read for free).

  2. J.A. Dettman / May 20 2009 7:50 pm

    Tommi, you may be right. I don’t know that the evidence for file-sharing benefits has been sufficiently proven but I’m open to the concept.

    However, I think that the decision to share a creation belongs to its creator. A person should have a choice about whether they embrace new technologies and marketing concepts.

  3. Tommi / May 21 2009 8:23 am

    I’m saying that the effects of filesharing have been shown to be both negative and positive (and neutral or conflicted) in several distinct studies, and hence drawing any conclusions is at best risky.

    I, too, think that a creator has the right to share or not share a creation. I further think that once something has been shared than the creator should have no more power over who can share the creation further, as long as the creator is given due credit.

  4. J.A. Dettman / May 21 2009 9:08 pm

    On the face of things, it would appear to me that we agree. Though I admit that I’ve been taking the anti-file-sharing side of things, I don’t actually have a problem with file-sharing if it is done with a creator’s consent.

    Really, I think it depends on what you mean when you talk about a creator sharing something. Do you consider writing and publishing a book ‘sharing’ or do you mean explicitly giving content away?

  5. Tommi / May 24 2009 2:55 am

    I think we disagree, since I consider all publishing to be sharing.

  6. J.A. Dettman / May 24 2009 8:23 am

    Then, yes, we disagree.

    So, how far does that extend, for you?

    If, once I’ve written something, I no longer have any power over who can share my creation then anyone has the right to publish my creation for profit as long as they give me credit?

    Anyone can give my work away for free as long as they give me credit?

    What is the benefit to the creator in such a system?

  7. Tommi / May 25 2009 8:03 am

    I do hope the disagreement remains civil.

    I advocate at least allowing personal/non-commercial free use. My stance on free commercial use is undefined right now; I think I’ll argue for it to explore it further.

    Creator has the same benefit as every other creator has; if I make a wheelbarrow, I can sell it to you. If I make a book, I can sell it to you. If you have a way of making books, or wheelbarrows, for free and you decide to start giving those copies away for free or at smaller cost, then I need to offer something extra if I still want to sell my own goods and have people buy them.

    If I am the first person to sell a book (wheelbarrow), then I will have time to potentially make significant income before others manage to start competing. I can accept donations, I can ransom future products, I can sell autographed and numbered versions of the books, I can provide all sorts of fancy bonus material. Maybe I’ll offer a subscription service where people can follow me as I write the next book. Musicians have it easy: They can perform live and ask money for that.

    People are pretty good at figuring out ways of making money, so I would not be too worried about their ability to do so regardless of copyright laws or lack thereof.

    Further, there is all the free culture. We both have blogs. Open source software. Music published under creative commons. People will create culture anyway, for reasons independent of money.

  8. J.A. Dettman / May 28 2009 7:32 am

    I have no trouble believing that people will figure out ways of making money. Whether those ways will be sufficiently profitable is a bigger concern.

    Also, I agree that people will create things (this blog, open source software, etc.) for free. There are a lot of abandoned blogs, software projects, and wikis out there, though. Perhaps some great ideas would have made it to market if the work they were doing wasn’t for free?

    In a culture in which there are no protections afforded to creators, a great deal of responsibility is placed in the hands of consumers. If consumers don’t reward creators for their efforts, then that dampens the ability to create.

    I write on this blog. The rewards for me aren’t monetary. I’m sharing my thoughts with my friends (who have been told of this blog) and whoever else wanders by. My reward is connecting with my friends and, infrequently, having interesting conversations with folks in the comments. Also, it keeps me writing which is good momentum for me.

    When I work for months or years on a book or PDF I don’t give the result away for free. I’ve put what I consider to be a certain amount of work into the product and, in exchange, I would like to be rewarded with money. If I have misjudged the market, the money isn’t sufficient to pay for the project but I’ve reduced my losses. If the project is successful, I make a profit which encourages me to continue producing such things.

    I guess what I’m saying is: would you rather your favorite author spent her time writing or working a day job?

    I work a day job. I get home tired and want to spend time with my wife. If I’m lucky, I get a few hundred words written a day on whatever project I’m working on.

    I’d rather have my favorite authors working on their next books as their jobs, rather than something to be done with their spare time.

  9. Tommi / Jun 3 2009 9:15 am

    A lot of my favourite authors are dead or unknown. Of the modern and famous ones, Neil Gaiman for example, I am not concerned; they are famous enough to make sufficient money regardless of copyright laws.

    Struggling authors don’t make much money as is; would weakening copyright increase their income? I’m willing to say “maybe”, as they would get more exposure.

    Are there authors who can write as their day job now but would not if the relevant laws were weakened or removed? Maybe. I don’t think there would be many, at least compared to those who would get more publicity and hence more money.

    (Generalises to other creative professions.)

    Suppose some famous writer approaches a publisher and offers them manuscript of his new book and further an agreement is made that he won’t offer it to anyone else for some suitable period of time. The publiser gives the author a big heap of money and makes a big heap of money by being the first one to sell the book in question. Soon others will make cheaper copies, but the first publisher still has a huge edge, especially if the author endorsed them.

    Essentially free distribution of PDFs simply means that selling them would be quite unprofitable without some clever idea; producing them (after the first one) is pretty much free, too, so I don’t see this as particularly unfair. Get money for the first. Ransom model or something. Or maybe think of PDFs as essentially free advertisement.

  10. J.A. Dettman / Jun 6 2009 5:31 pm

    That is quite a bit of speculation to base the creativity and effort of a lot of people on. Especially when it is harder to put that djinni back in the bottle once out.

    As more e-readers like the Kindle become available, how does giving away free electronic copies of books become profitable?

    Even famous authors are going to have a hard time getting book deals when anyone can legally give their works away for free.

    As I see it, to make doing away with copyright work human nature would have to change. You would have to make people understand and believe that the creativity and effort of others is worth something even when given away.

    Now, I understand the argument about creating premium products. Giving away the basic item and providing nicer products with better layout, art, and a hardcover. From the outside, it looks like the creator has to become a marketer for that to work and I suck as a marketer.

  11. Tommi / Jun 9 2009 1:01 pm

    The speculation goes both ways. Consider the immediate benefits: Lots of old works, virtually abandoned by whoever has the right to them, would become available again (the big companies have little urge to sell old niche products). Orphan works with unclear copyrights would become likewise available for public use. Even reducing the currently absurd times that work remain under copyright would give immediate benefits with no harm to any living artist.

    The is also the fact that RIAA and MPAA constantly lobby for reductions in liberties of people; Disney lobbies longer copyright times simply to make more money from Mickey Mouse; copyright, as an institution, causes much harm.

    I think the best solution would be a gradual decrease in copyright times. In the unlikely case that creative work would be significantly reduced in quantity or quality the change could be stopped. In the far more likely case of only the big companies losing significant, and hardly earned, income the rate of change could be adjusted upwards.

    I do and will believe in the ability for people to figure out ways of making money. If you really want, I can address the specific concerns you raise, but I honestly think it would not lead to a particularly fruitful discussion.

  12. J.A. Dettman / Jun 16 2009 2:07 pm

    I would heartily agree with a gradual reduction in copyright length. It might even be slow enough to stop big business from freaking out about it.

    If I thought it could work, politically, I would advocate reducing copyright to 10 years. Disney, I’m sure, would scream bloody murder.

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