Illegal downloading is a subject I’ve been wanting to write about for ages. It’s very murky – it’s emotional and ethical/unethical and no one has a clue how to start untangling it (or rather, everyone has an opinion about how to start). But it’s an important topic.
David Lowery, a musician and lecturer in economics, wrote a public letter on Monday to an intern at NPR (national public radio). She had written on NPR’s music blog: “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” In his letter Lowery breaks down some of the misconceptions about file-sharing and actively calls on our generation to think about the ethics of our actions.
His letter is passionate and articulate, but there were a couple of key points that I felt he either didn’t address, or which didn’t satisfy me. I want to outline them here in full knowledge that they’re not definitive answers to the digital media conundrum – but that I would like to begin challenging, discussing and rethinking them.
1) Consumers are not philanthropists.
There’s an image of the artist that pervades Lowery’s letter – the poor, struggling artist. He gives anecdotes of the ways artists have suffered – deeply – from losing their income. It’s tragic, the way thousands of people losing their jobs when a factory closes is tragic. But I don’t know that playing on peoples’ pity will change consumer choices – not on a scale large enough to affect the market.
He ends his letter with a call to action to donate money to various charities that help artists. That seems really odd to me.
On the one hand, yes, artists need a lot of financial help, and anyone who’s prepared to give it – thank you!
But artists who are serious about making money from what they do – the artists who would suffer from losing their livelihoods – are not charity cases. They’re business people. (Serious question: do business people in other industries also have access to charities?)
So: consumers are not philanthropists – and artists are not charity cases.
2) Artists are business people.
Lowery talks about the hidden costs of file-sharing. He points out that you might be able to download stuff for free, but the money is being exchanged somewhere. Internet providers get your money, the people who own the file-sharing sites get your money and the people who advertise (as well as the people who sell them the advertising) get your money.
So people are definitely making money off this – large corporations, mostly, not artists.
What Lowery fails to point out is: PEOPLE ARE DEFINITELY MAKING MONEY OFF THIS. There’s income to be made. Artists and artistic studios/companies/organisations just haven’t figured out how to get a piece of it yet.
3) Digital objects don’t have the same value as physical objects.
This is confounding, because just as much love and labour goes into, for example, an ebook as a paper book. It is the same object. But the simple fact that you can’t hold it devalues it in a consumer’s eyes. The simple fact that you can jump on the internet and have it almost right away devalues it. Probably it shouldn’t. But the fact is that it does.
I suspect bemoaning this undervaluing isn’t going to change what’s happening. Artists can’t browbeat their consumers into sharing their views – consumers feel the way they feel, irrational or not (and hasn’t consumer desire always been irrational?). I can only assume value has to be found elsewhere for digital objects, like Amazon have done with the Kindle.
We see this in other markets where a product is intangible. Public transport systems have to police commuters. Cinemas have been redesigned to have one door in, and one door out. And they charge $12 for a bucket of what is essentially the cheapest grain on earth and hot air. Notice, though, how people choose to buy popcorn? It’s all part of the experience and they don’t mind paying for it.
4) It’s not a matter of “not wanting to pay” – it’s a matter of lifestyle.
Lowery points out that consumers have already spent $1,000 on their laptop before they can get any “free” files. It’s kinda off-point, because no one buys a laptop just to illegally download stuff. (Okay. The world’s a big, populated place. Probably someone does.) They buy it because it’s one of the necessary lynchpins of their lifestyle.
No one denies that the internet has changed the way we conduct almost every daily transaction – so it makes sense that it also changes the lifestyle we expect. Actually, expect is the wrong word. It’s more like simple experience. We don’t question it. We rely on it, we breathe it. We know it’s there when we reach out.
TorrentFreak recently collated all their illegal download data and found Australia topped the Game of Thrones ranking. (The comments, by the way, are enlightening.) There’s this phenomenal tv show that every online community you belong to is talking about. Every day you see the images, hear spoilers. There’s buzz, because HBO wants you to watch it – so you want to watch it.
And you can.
The internet turns geographical restrictions into an abstract concept – because Game of Thrones isn’t on the other side of the world in America, it’s right here, where you are, at your fingertips. I should point out that it airs in Australia one week (I think) after its US airing, but only on Foxtel. I couldn’t find any exact figures on their website, but let’s say $50-$80 per month?
I was chatting with Jo Bourne on twitter about the geographical restrictions problem, and she said, “But isn’t there value in preserving local communities?” Well, yes. But just look who said that to me – Joanna Bourne, an American writer, who is part of my everyday community. Because of the internet.
Many of my localised communities are not geographical.
And yes: sharing files that don’t belong to you is an illegal act. There’s no getting around that. I can’t explain why our generation is taking to it anyway. It’s a full-blown ethical question, and I enjoyed how Lowery’s letter engaged with it. We have responsibilities to each other as human beings that are more complicated than just what we want right now.
But I do not see this trend reversing itself. And I want to make it very clear that when I say trend I don’t mean taking things illegally, I mean the systems people use to consume their media. This is also what I mean by lifestyle. Not some odious sense of privilege – but the day-to-day, lived experience of life. The way people consume media has changed – the market has changed.
Which isn’t to say artists won’t figure out how to make it profitable. I have every faith in human inventiveness.
Lowery shakes his head at a generation who doesn’t use their morality and principles to guide them through technological change, but rather lets technological change dictate their morality and principles. I’m researching the industrial revolution at the moment. Technology (which comes from people, not the Jules Verne nightmare Lowery points to) has always felt beyond us, pushing us into the future despite ourselves, from the first train engines – which were named after gods and dragons – to the internet.
But the wonderful thing about people is – just as quickly as technology changes on us, we change on it. We’re so adaptable – so ready to put what we have to good use.
Take Pioneer One, a crowd-funded tv show that’s released on the sites where people download their tv. The creative team fundraised enough for the first two episodes – and then relied on its fans wanting to see what happened next. It’s absolute proof that people aren’t scared to shell out. People want to contribute to the culture they belong to. The Nazi-spoof Iron Sky that was recently on at the cinema? Crowd-sourced.
I can only imagine the visceral rage artists feel seeing their hard work up on file-sharing sites. What downloaders are doing is illegal – but I don’t know that anyone’s going to change their minds. Those people artists rage against? They are the market. I said earlier that the value of a digital object has to be found elsewhere, and when it comes to ebooks I suspect the value is somewhere in community, tied to media systems that work with consumer habits.
I greatly respect Courtney Milan for blazing the way with self-publishing – but even more so for her generous approach to her community. In the back of her novella The Governess Affair she doesn’t sternly remind the reader that this is her property, she writes: Thanks for reading The Governess Affair! I hope you enjoyed it. Did you know you can lend this book? Please consider sharing it with a friend. And: Where such permission is sufficient, the author grants the right to strip any DRM which may be applied to this work.
Here’s what I’m facing: All things going well, people will be pirating my books in the next couple of years. That’s going to be my reality.
It’s natural to expect that when that happens my neat little aphorisms about “lifestyle” and “philanthropy” will be chucked to the wayside while I chase down my titles and remove them from illegal download sites.
Right now – I don’t want that to happen. I want to put my money where my mouth is. I believe there’s a market out there – bigger than there’s ever been – it’s just a new market, and no one quite knows how to access it yet.
I’m a writer, not a marketer. I don’t know how to look at this mess and create something from it. But then, three months ago I didn’t know how to write a business plan, either. Actually, it was worse than that. I was sure I couldn’t write one. I was so confronted by trying to do it, when I had no clue how to even begin, that I felt physically sick. But I kept at it, and now I have one – and boy is that a useful document!
So I’m going to approach this whole new-market thing the same way. Something I can’t do. A lot of hard work. Necessary, if I want to make it. As Philip Pullman writes*:
You don’t win races by wishing, you win them by running faster than everyone else. And to do that you have to strive your utmost, and sometimes even that isn’t enough, because another runner just might be more talented than you are. Here’s the truth: If you want something, you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and despair, and only if you’re willing to risk failure.
* from Clockwork