New Page -- 11 September 2003
There ain't no free lunch.
Contrary to this general philosophical assumption is the idea that music, videos, and other forms of digital entertainment can indeed be had for free. It's like a whole new world of love, sharing, file-swapping, Age of Aquarius, and general all-around pursuit of happiness. It's the breaking of the chains of financial slavery where only those with the bucks can enjoy the creative wonders of talented artists.
It's also called digital piracy.
Digital piracy is distinct from oil piracy where one country invades another for its oil, as in Oil Wars or Bush Wars. Or just for the heck of it in War Wars and other forms of Conflict. This is about ripping off the incredibly rich and greedy producers! (Come to think of it, so are the wars, at least in part.)
You may have already heard about the very well publicized Dragnet, the hundreds of subpoenas seeking the names of music pirates, and the launching of an all out offensive against who would use the power of personal computers to become self-contained entertainment studios. There is in fact a virtual rush of planted news stories telling of people being taken down for digital piracy. The counter-offensive by the Corporate interests is definitely on.
Even the movie theaters are now including morality appeals with honest Joes and Janes -- who work in the less rewarding aspects of moviemaking -- telling people that digital piracy is wrong. Such appeals are really down-home heart warming -- straight from the heartland, right alongside mom and apple pie.
What is not mentioned, however, is that digital piracy is also a real drain on profits for the producers. It is the latter, of course, who ponied up the money to run the propaganda on the movie screens, and who also pay the honest Joes and Janes their less-than-exorbitant salaries). Hollywood is, after all, the master of illusions.
As some of you may recall, the promise of the Computer Age included the opportunity for everyone to have a personal link to the world with the capability of readily accessible information, mail, financial dealings, and entertainment. As Lev Grossman phrased it , "What we have here is not a failure to communicate; it's a raging, runaway success." The vision of never having to leave your home in order to communicate with the outside world is even now rushing upon us. This is good, right?
And yet, inexplicably, there are those who don't like individuals downloading music, swapping video files with their friends, and enjoying the delights of online movies, TV shows, software and video games. Current estimates are that 2.6 billion files -- which is a lot of Gigabytes -- have been illegally downloaded. That is 2.6 billions files each and every month -- and that's just the music! It's like a "celestial jukebox." 
You may find it curious, but the "suits" who represent the Entertainment Industry are not taking this at all well. With sales of CDs down 9% in 2002 -- on top of a 6% slide in 2001 -- the entertainment industry is feeling as if it is being torn apart. Jack Valenti -- the guy in the really, really expensive Armani suits (and parenthetically the head of the Motion Picture Association of America) -- goes so far as to say, "If we let this stand, you're going to see the undoing of this society."
Hmmmm... Which society, Jack? The society you, the big name celebrities, and the well heeled producers constitute? Possibly. Keep in mind, however, that "an estimated 60 million Americans, more than the number of Bush voters in 2000, are using file-sharing networks on the Inter Net."  This is a pretty big -- albeit alternative -- society. Is this the society that is being undone? Or is this the society that is doing the undoing? Overall, it sounds positively revolutionary!
The problem with suing people is that it doesn't make you popular -- and if there is anything on which the Entertainment Industry depends, it's being popular! On the one hand, "no one is going to feel bad for ripping off the suits who ripped off their favorite rock star."  Furthermore, the companies screaming the loudest are also "the same companies that coughed up $143 million last October to settle a class action accusing them of price fixing" -- price fixing being a means of costing those who pay for their entertainment even more. Even when the sympathy seeker is a popular star, it is easy enough "to spot the irony in a zillionaire celebrity pleading for sympathy." 
In many respects this is the story about the have-nots -- with their far larger population -- being at odds with the have-a-whole-lots. There is just the possibility that this is just the beginning of the World Series of Entertainment, with the Pirates battling the Suits.
Grossman asks the question of "What if the pirates win?" What if it the Suits lose? What if digital piracy is re-defined as legitimate or simply accepted as a fact of life? Don't count on it. Corporate suits don't even like to think about it. But what if...?
"If you play the thought experiment out to its logical extreme, the body count is high. After all, you can't have an information economy in which all information is free. The major music labels would disappear; ditto the record stores that sell their CD's. The age of millionaire rock stars would be over; they would become as much an historical curiosity as the landed aristocracy is today. Instead, musicians would scratch out a living on the touring circuit, since in an age of free music the only commodity they would control is live performance, along with any merchandise they could hawk in the parking lot after the show. Hollywood would also take a hit." No video stores. "TV studios would likewise have to do without their cushy syndication deals, sine the Net would become the land of infinite reruns." 
The logic here can be questioned to some degree:
The essence of this debate is not so much that entertainers -- writers, directors, stars, bit players, singers, dancers, composers, and so forth and so on -- are to be denied useful (and profitable) employment. It's more a matter of exactly how much are they going to profit from their talents? Better yet, how much are their handlers -- the Suits, producers, and marketeers -- going to profit from all of this -- specifically, someone else's talents? How much is going to go to the people "who drive the demand" with promotional techniques of every stripe and fashion?
In some respects, the difference of opinion between the Pirates and the Suits -- with the game already in the third inning -- may be irrelevant. The future may in fact already be here -- as evidenced by the action in Asia where "it is a fact of life". "Hypothetical horror stories are almost beside the point. The people have spoken [more than those who voted for George Bush], and they say they want a revolution." Grossman goes on to note, "Technology has a way of sweeping aside questions of what is right or wrong and replacing them with the reality of what is possible."  As Saint Paul has said, "All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient." Paying for bottled or digital entertainment may, in the long run, not be expedient.
There is a fair chance that the Genie is out of the bottle and looking for larger living accommodations. There is in fact this strange sense that it's good to see the magical one out on the streets again and looking for miracles to unfold. What "wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles" may we see next?
Or forward to:
 Lev Grossman, "It's All FREE!", Time Magazine, 2003.
 Chris Taylor, "Downloader Dragnet," Time Magazine, August 4, 2003.
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