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Following up on the previous post, I've had something on my mind for awhile that I'd like to get out. So, basically all of my friends that are my age or younger are essentially totally comfortable with "piracy", and in fact almost all of them engage in it in some form or another. But, these same people are often not actually willing to say explicitly that they support the status quo, i.e. their ability to obtain copyrighted works relatively easily.

The moral dilemma here is simple: by saying "I ought to have the right to obtain copyrighted works for free" seems to lead immediately to the conclusion "I don't think artists and content producers should be paid for their work." And herein lies the key issue, which is that most of us understand this argument but we don't buy it, and for somewhat non-obvious reasons. What most of us are actually thinking is much more precise: "I don't believe that whenever I consume copyrighted material I should always have to make a marginal contribution to the revenue stream of the content producer." This might, at first glance, seem to be equivalent to the original statement, that I should be able to obtain stuff for free, but it's expressly not. In fact, I would posit that the majority of our entirely-legal consumption of content makes no marginal contribution to the content owner's revenue stream. While there are many scenarios which the MPAA/RIAA would like to label as "stealing" (e.g. Using bittorrent to obtain a film currently in theaters), there are so many cases where it's not entirely clear if the MPAA/RIAA's notion of "theft" has occurred:

-- I watched a DVD which I found in a box on the street
-- I watched a TV show but my TiVo removed the ads
-- I bittorrented a movie for my computer, but I already purchased the DVD
-- I used my mother's netflix account to watch a film
-- I bought a used laptop which contained a number of ripped DVDs
-- I taped a song from the radio and gave the tape to my friend

Before the internet, we were never asked to make judgments about whether our consumption contributed to a revenue stream. We never had to worry about the business model of content producers. What I find so incredibly awkward with the "piracy is immoral" argument is that, if I buy into this, it means I have to worry about how I'm providing revenue, or at least how I fit into the successful business model, in EVERY SINGLE instance in which I consume or obtain content -- "Each time I hear a song without listening to an accompanying advertisement, I should send a nickel to the artist". But I think we (including the the RIAA/MPAA) know very well that this proposition is absurd, that we've never been expected to do this, and that we never will.

(As an aside, I'd like to recommend two posts by Matt Yglesias on piracy: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/01/20/online_piracy_is_still_a_fake_problem.html and http://www.slate.com/articles/business/small_business/2012/01/sopa_stopping_online_piracy_would_be_a_social_and_economic_disaster_.html).
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In addition to this, we have always had stores that sold used media, whether they were records, books, movies, or games. We also have always had libraries. And no one things loaning something to someone else is wrong. The MPAA and the RIAA are trying to assert much stronger property rights than have ever existed.

The other relevant detail is that the MPAA and RIAA aren't the people that make the content, they are the distribution cartel. So it's not clear to me that their concerns should loom all that large in the social calculus. They seem to screw over creators as much as people who download songs do. So to me, it seems like the potentially aggrieved parties aren't being represented in the discussion. The MPAA and RIAA are naturally upset that their business models don't work so well given new technological realities, but there's no reason to think that we need to protect those interests anymore than we have to protect Kodak and their polaroid cameras.

I think we need to back up and think about what we're worried about. I agree with Yglesias in that I think that copyrights and patents are things that the State makes up to encourage more people to create useful/enjoyable stuff. And copyrights and patents are only justifiable on the grounds that they encourage more creation. But if we don't need them to get people to make stuff, then we shouldn't have them. Or if a weaker version of them would do better, then it should be weaker. People seem to make plenty of stuff under the regime of lots of downloading. So it seems like a non-problem. Capitalism doesn't mean right to profit. In fact, normal justifications of markets focus on consumer surplus, not supplier profit. So if we're generating lots of consumer surplus, then it suggests we're going in the right direction.

All that said, if it turns out that we're slowly starving creators, and we're losing out on our supply of new stuff, then it seems like a better model is something like compulsory licensing, and a broad tax. Let anyone use whatever, but there's a fee associated with it, and we tax things like internet usage or storage space based on the expectation value of those things being used for illicit purposes. Then the pot of money generated by taxes gets paid out proportionally to the people who made the stuff based on popularity of downloads. Not a perfect solution, but probably the most easily implementable one.
 
First the fundamental point: The purpose of copyright is the greater good. Fairness, ownership, and revenue streams are irrelevant, except when they serve the greater good.

Secondly, free access to copyrighted material does not necessarily lead to artists not being paid for their work. There are many other ways artists can generate revenue from their work besides selling copies.
 
See, I think the issue is that content producers don't think the idea that they should be compensated for every act of media consumption is absurd. There's that famous quote by a movie executive who was against VCRs because people would be able to go over to their friends' homes to watch a movie w/o paying for it.
 
"I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA 1982

If everyone had to pay you a dollar every time they walked out their front door, you'd be pretty upset when they installed side-doors.
 
Jake, you made some really good points, especially about the "benign thefts". One thing I don't hear too often is the distinction between the content /producer/ and the content /provider/. As I understand it, many (most?) artists are not that worried about piracy (e.g. Radiohead), at least, not nearly as much as the record companies, theaters, etc. I for one only go to a movie theater when I'm willing to pay for the experience of viewing the content there, not for the content itself. I think it's a bit absurd to say that the fight against digital piracy is about protecting the artists, no? Another point: digital information is easily and losslessly copied and transmitted -- that's why we use digital formats. So why fight this fundamental property of the medium? Now that the rules have changed, surely the industry and business models will/should change, but will there really be less or lower quality entertainment because of this shift in the incentive structure, or is this just the industry fighting that change?
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