Jonathan Coulton Destroys The Rationale Behind The Megaupload Seizure With A Single Tweet; Follows Up With Epic Blog Post
from the and-the-score-is-Coulton:-a-billion;-content-industries:-less-than-zero dept
With Megaupload seized by the feds and everyone else even slightly involved seized by Anonymous, man-without-a-label Jonathan Coulton stepped into the breach and tweeted what we all only wish we were thinking:
(If you can’t read it, Coulton said: “Any other musicians notice that ever since they shut down MegaUpload, the money has just been POURING in?”)
And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? The DOJ claims that Megaupload’s infringement has cost copyright holders a half-billion dollars over an unspecified timeframe. And now that it’s been shuttered, the money should start pouring in. But, of course, it won’t. So, what then? First off, as Coulton points out, there’s bound to be collateral damage.
Along with all the illegal stuff happening on MegaUpload was some amount of completely legal stuff. People used MegaUpload to send large files around. Some number of those files were personal files owned by the people sending them. I have no idea what the ratio was, and probably it would be impossible to figure that out with any certainty, but let’s stipulate that it was a very large percentage of illegal activity, and only a very tiny percentage of the users were there for anything other than downloading content that they didn’t buy. Still, today that tiny percentage had something taken away from them, without warning, maybe just a service they liked using, but maybe a piece of digital media that belonged to them – if they uploaded something and didn’t keep a copy, that thing is now gone. Them’s the breaks I guess, but in evaluating whether this shutdown was a net positive for us humans, you have to take that into account.
Even some of the illegal usage was likely the kind of activity that approaches what I consider to be victimless piracy: people downloading stuff they already bought but lost, people downloading stuff they missed on TV and couldn’t find on Netflix or iTunes, people downloading stuff they didn’t like and regretted watching or hearing and never would have bought anyway, people downloading a Jonathan Coulton album (oh let’s say, Artificial Heart, the new Jonathan Coulton album, which is an awesome Jonathan Coulton album called Artificial Heart) and loving it so much that in a year they decide to buy a ticket to a Jonathan Coulton show and walk up to the merch table and hand me $20. I know not everyone will think all of those things are victimless crimes, and even I can admit that some of them maybe kinda sorta have victims, but my point is that you can’t easily say that every illegal download is a lost sale, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. So when you evaluate the “damage” that a site like MegaUpload is causing, you have to think about these things too. The grand jury indictment against them says they’ve caused $500 million in damages to copyright owners. Given the complexity of actual usage on a site like MegaUpload, how can they possibly know that?
So, there’s that. An allegedly huge provider of “lost sales” taken down, along with other non-infringing material. Does anyone really think the DOJ is going to bother sorting out what’s legitimate and what isn’t? I wouldn’t hold my breath. And to what end? Supposedly, this is a step towards returning the MPAA and RIAA fortunes to their all-time highs. But when Megaupload’s takedown fails to convert into sales, then what?
No one (not even Coulton) truly expects the seizure of a single storage locker, even a mammoth one like Megaupload, to make an appreciable difference in future sales of music and movies. More sites will have to be seized, sites like Mediafire, Rapidshare, Divshare, Hulkshare, Filesonic, etc. Many of these sites host a ton of perfectly legal, non-infringing media. Look around Bandcamp for a bit and you’ll run across links to these sites (Mediafire seems to be a favorite) posted by artists for their fans to make use of. Hulkshare hosts hundreds of mixtapes, uploaded by the artists themselves and promoted at sites like Datpiff.
And as each of these sites tumble without a noticeable change in sales, the march will continue on towards other sites that might be hosting infringing material. How long will it take before the rightsholders ask to peek at the contents of your cloud services? Are they going to ask, like so many commenters here, that you produce receipts for everything you have stored?
Even though the White House shot down the current incarnation of SOPA, it still made this statement:
Let us be clear-online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders.
But how big is this “piracy problem?” And how much does it actually “harm” the American economy? The way Coulton sees it, there’s no reason to believe this “problem” is crying out for a legislative solution:
Is it really as dire as all that? It’s an emergency is it? Tim (O’Reilly) points out that he and a lot of other content creators have been happily coexisting with piracy all this time, and I’m certainly one of them. Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan. The big content companies are TERRIBLE at doing both of these things, so it’s no wonder they’re not doing so well in the current environment. And right now everyone’s fighting to control distribution channels, which is why I can’t watch Star Wars on Netflix or iTunes. It’s fine if you want to have that fight, but don’t yell and scream about how you’re losing business to piracy when your stuff isn’t even available in the box I have on top of my TV. A lot of us have figured out how to do this.
So if you can stand me sounding a little crazy, listen: where is the proof that piracy causes economic harm to anyone? Looking at the music business, yes profits have gone down ever since Napster, but has anyone effectively demonstrated the causal link between that and piracy? There are many alternate theories (people buying songs and not whole albums, music sucking more, niches and indie acts becoming more viable, etc.). The Swiss government did a study and determined that unauthorized downloading (which 1/3 of their citizens do) does not create any loss in revenue for the entertainment industry.
When the money fails to pour in, no one will be surprised but the content industry. And they’ll be surprised and angry. Equating casual infringement with lost sales has always been a terrible assumption, but without this key bit of theoretical math, the RIAA/MPAA would be unable to make hysterical claims about job losses, overseas robber barons and Megaupload absconding with a half-billion of their cash. The problem is: the public doesn’t see it this way.
We are constantly demonstrating through our actions what we believe to be the norms for acquiring and consuming content. Right now a lot of us think that it’s OK to download stuff through illegal sites under certain circumstances, and a lot of us think it’s totally fine to use those things to make videos and put them on YouTube even though YouTube profits from it. That’s not ME saying that, that’s US saying that – we’re a nation of pirates and infringers. Based on our behavior, you would not be wrong to deduce that some of us think funny videos on YouTube are more important than honoring intellectual property rights. This kind of thing has happened before. Entire industries rise and fall as the world changes and our priorities shift. Sorry.
I believe in copyright. I benefit from it. I don’t want it to go away. I love that we have laws and people to enforce them. But if I had to give up one thing, if I had to choose between copyright and the wild west, semi-lawless, innovation-fest that is the internet? I’ll take the internet every time.
Amen to that.