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Piracy: as much a part of the ‘I want’ culture as Carr’s accounting

At some point during the last 10 years or so, the idea that everything that can be taken for free should be taken for free has become widely accepted.
 The most intriguing thing about the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal was not the relaxed set of regulations governing the expenses process, but rather the widespread assumption by MPs that if it was possible to put in a claim for something it would be fit and proper to do so – the morality of the claim itself being a moot point.
Further down the food chain, a visible feature of last August’s rioting was the proportion of trouble that appeared to be motivated by little more than an unquenchable thirst for consumer goods; free consumer goods. There can be little doubt that deprivation and broken homes played a part, perhaps even providing the much talked about “spark” that “ignited” the trouble. But disenfranchised youth looting sports gear has more in common with the mantra that “greed is good” than with any coherent “rebellion”.

A belief in deferred gratification – that is, the idea that if you want something you must bide your time and patiently save the money for it – sounds to today’s debt-ridden society like a well-conducted tour of Atlantis. You will even hear corporate press officers explaining the popularity of technological devices such as the Kindle (a tool for reading books, no less) in terms of the instantaneous gratification they provide. People don’t want to wait several days for their book to drop through the letterbox, so the corporate message goes. They want it now: this instant. (One wonders if these “consumers”, so concerned with speed, start reading from the back of the book, all the better to immediately discern what the plot is.)

Not only do we expect to get our hands on the things we desire right away, but we increasingly turn our noses up at the prospect of giving anything back in return. Nowhere is this more apparent than the music industry, where record sales in the UK declined for the seventh successive year in 2011, due in large part to internet file sharing. In 2010 global music sales fell by almost £930m, with “physical” sales of CDs dropping in the UK by almost a fifth.

recent article that appeared on the American NPR music blog summed up the attitude of many young people to free downloading. The author, a young lady called Emily White, said she had an iTunes library in excess of 11,000 songs of which she had “never invested money”. “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums,” Ms White went on to admit. “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”.

Responding to Ms White’s article, David Lowery of Artists for an Ethical Internet described her attitude as “unexceptional”, and based on a common disconnect between “personal behaviour and a greater social injustice that is occurring”. “You are not just ripping off the record labels, but you are directly ripping off the artist and songwriters whose music you ‘don’t buy’,” Mr Lowery said.

And it is not only the music industry that is suffering because of the increasing unwillingness of individuals to pay for content. According to a study by US Professors Michael Smith and Rahul Telang of the Carnegie Mellon University, the film industry too is being badly hit, with around 40 per cent of the revenue for a typical film being lost to piracy. The traditional copyright model meant that in the past an artist maintained control of his or her work because it was recognised as the property of the individual that created it for a set period of time. This gave the artist the right to sell the fruits of their labours and make a living from it, which in turn allowed artists and writers to operate professionally without the film and music industries being the preserve of a wealthy elite. Today all that is changing.

It is now technologically possible for corporations and individuals to exploit the property rights of artists and writers and the piracy lobby insists that because it is possible it must also be perfectly ethical. In other words, technology has begun to dictate what is morally acceptable rather than morality dictating how technology is used. The debate has also misleadingly been framed in terms of censorship rather than elementary workers’ rights. A recent statement to the press made by the Pirate Bay after the UK’s internet service providers were ordered by the High Court to block the Swedish site was both cretinous and disingenuous.

“The Western countries of the world all complaints [sic] about the censorship in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and so on. But they are really the worst culprits themselves, having double morals in doing an even worse thing themselves.”
You could be forgiven for confusing this with a child throwing their food off the plate because Mummy won’t give them the big plastic spoon. Ensuring that people are paid sufficiently for their work (an admirable and progressive goal one would think) has very little to do with censorship and is in no way comparable to the repression of governments that have been known to “disappear” their critics. One almost expects those who run the Pirate Bay to come out and say they are being “oppressed” because they’ve run out of chocolate Hobnobs.
Strangely, the cause of unfettered internet piracy is most often taken up by people on the political Left – a movement that has traditionally believed in the furtherance of workers’ rights as a first principle. Are brow-beaten musicians, film directors and writers not as deserving of a decent day’s pay as workers in other industries? Or are they exempt from such concerns because they make their living doing something they enjoy?

Internet piracy isn’t subversive. It is as much a part of the “I want” culture as Jimmy Carr’s clever accounting. As Mr Lowery puts it: “I have witnessed the impoverishment of many critically acclaimed but marginally commercial artists. There is no other explanation except for the fact that ‘fans’ made the unethical choice to take their music without compens ating these artists.”

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