Confession time: when was the last time you actually paid for music? As in, visited a record store (either bricks-and-mortar or virtual) and anted up for the latest and/or greatest from Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum, Ladytron, or whoever sits at the top of your favourite playlist.
Been a while? You’re not alone. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it’s fair to say the illegal downloading of music, movies, games, computer programs, and other copyrighted material has become an epidemic. According to the British Recorded Music Industry, a trade association for the United Kingdom’s record companies (admittedly, not a disinterested source), there were more than 1.2 billion illegal music downloads in the U.K. in 2010 alone.
These numbers are a problem. Not for you, necessarily, but for those who earn their living creating, managing, and selling the world’s entertainment. In the decade or so since broadband replaced dial-up, companies in the “content” business have seen revenues dry up faster than a puddle in West Texas. Case in point: In 2006, the music industry in the United States sold 588 million albums. Four years later, that number had declined to 326 million, a drop of 45 per cent. Talk about a pay cut.
The reason, quite simply, is that many of us have become pirates: swashbuckling ne’er-do-wells who sail the digital seas downloading, copying, and sharing our playlists without paying for the privilege. After all, who needs Sam the Record Man on Yonge or the HMV Megastore on Robson when you’ve got BitTorrent? Or the Pirate Bay? Or FrostWire? Or any one of the dozens of other sites that offer free, fast file sharing with millions of other users around the world?
Such theft has transcended the disrepute of serious crime. Today, piracy is the equivalent of jaywalking in any large city, or smoking pot in Vancouver: an activity that is technically illegal, but so common that no one much cares. The hackers and programmers who enable such activity are considered by many to be modern-day Robin Hoods, savvy cyber-vigilantes waging war on those who would keep the people from their rightful due.
Not that the guys in the suits intend to go down without a fight. Back in 2000, a ragtag group of record companies and rock stars sued what was then the biggest file-sharing site on the planet, Napster. The lawsuit accused the company of enabling millions of downloads of copyrighted music and movies, often before their official release. While the lawsuit was ultimately successful in killing the body of Napster, by that time, copycat sites ensured its spirit would live on.
And so industry turned to another avenue: Congress. After years of intensive lobbying, the United States House of Representatives tabled the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last October. Under the bill’s original provisions, copyright holders would be able to force U.S.-based search companies, payment processors, and ISPs to blacklist any foreign-domiciled site either enabling illegal downloading or hosting copyrighted content without permission. Social media users who linked to those download sites could have status updates and tweets deleted without notice. Most onerous of all, the bill did not require companies to prove a given site was violating copyright—an accusation was enough to force it down. And they could do it without any kind of oversight, judicial review, or prior approval whatsoever.
These far-reaching provisions led to a vociferous protest. Both professional hackers and mainstream Internet communities cried foul over the censorship effort. Silicon Valley warned that the bill would suffocate innovation. Civil libertarians declared the lack of oversight would inevitably lead to commercial abuse. To protest, well-known sites like Wikipedia, Minecraft, and others went dark for a day: users visiting the sites were greeted with a black screen. Others such as Wired and Google placed black blocks over their content. These efforts were ultimately successful, and in January, the bill was rescinded to loud applause.
Depending on which side of the transaction you’re on, the failure of SOPA is either a triumph of digital advocacy or of digital thuggery. Either way, it’s unlikely to be the last shot fired in the battle. Already, members of Congress are investigating ways to make a kinder, gentler anti-piracy bill—perhaps by removing some of SOPA’s more questionable provisions; perhaps by making enforcement the responsibility of the U.S. International Trade Commission rather than the Department of Justice, as proposed by the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN).
Will it make a difference? Doubtful. Disruptive change is the nature of technology; the entertainment industry will not be the last to see its business model wreck upon the shoals of the World Wide Web. For every SOPA, there will be a Pirate Bay. For every politician railing about the immorality of piracy, there will be hackers who make it their life’s mission to enable it. For every executive worried about profit margins, there will be a user—most likely several hundred—who couldn’t care less.
More interesting than the thrust and parry of legal arguments is the ethical issue: how are we to justify such blatant and widespread theft to ourselves? On that, John Q. Public has responded with a collective “meh”. You can see how people think that way. In an age seemingly defined by corporate malfeasance, the crime of digital piracy seems petty indeed. Is downloading that old Pink Floyd album you listened to in college really as serious as, say, busting out a bank? Or lying about carcinogens in the products you sell? Or spilling 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico? When it comes to pillage and plunder, why should corporations have all the fun? Drink up, me ’earties, yo ho.