L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

11 October 2007 Blog Home : October 2007 : Permalink

More Copyright / Internet Debate

There are, I guess, almost as many sides on the Copyright / Indernet debate as there were factions in the Lebanese civil war. I'm not going to stretch my metaphor at all here except to note that just like in that civil war you have alliances between groups that otherwise would prefer to be at each other's throats.

Anyway the RIAA's recent courtroom victory over what looks like a particularly dumb filesharer has brought out a large number of commenters who seem to be willing to disguise the fact that the filesharer does indeed appear to have been guilty of copyright infringement. For example this article at counterpunch. I'm not going to quote from it but if I were the RIAA, MPAA or any other group that wanted to protect the current high prices, restrictive DRM etc. then this would be the article I would use to sway moderates that I was on the right side. If ever there an example were needed that "the friend of my friend is my enemy" then this would be it.

Fortunately for my sanity other people have more sane discussions. I've mentioned Eric Flint's thoughts on copyright, DRM etc., a few times. His view on "piracy" as a crime, as opposed ot it as free marketing, boils down to this:

...Whether a given title of mine sells 10,001 copies or 100,000 copies, I will make 15% of the retail price from each sale.

Okay, now let's translate that into dollars and cents. The cover price of hardcover fiction titles varies a bit, but it's fair today to put $25.00 as more-or-less the standard price.

Even at the top 15% tier, in other words, a theft of one of my books causes me loss and suffering in the amount of $3.75. About what it costs to buy a cheeseburger and fries at a hamburger chain like McDonald's, or a large cappuccino at Starbuck's.

So. Can you imagine the ridicule I would be subjected to if I demanded that a louse who stole my large cappuccino was a "pirate." No different from a murderer, or a rapist, or an arsonist, or an armed robber?

Mind you, even the theft of a cup of cappuccino is a theft, sure enough. It's against the law, and if the police catch the culprit he will be charged with a crime.

A misdemeanor, to be precise. Because when it comes to theft—assuming no violence is involved—the distinction between a misdemeanor offense and a felony is normally determined by the amount of money involved in the theft. And, in any municipality I know of, $3.75 falls way below the bar needed to turn a theft into a felony like robbery. Much less the equivalent of murder, rape, and arson.

The RIAA treats filesharers as soemthing worse than bank-robbers and that annoys people because they see that in actuality the loss is, as Comrade Flint says, at the level of petty shoplifting. What he doesn't say there but does say elsewhere (as do other authors such as Messrs Scalzi and Stross) is that many "pirates" turn to piracy because they can't afford to buy what they want to consume - typically because they are teenagers, a class of folk who rarely have pots of ready money - but are likely to buy in better form media content that they enjoy and whose creators/distributors treat them like responsible adults, not thieves.

And on that note we come to the other good piece of recent writing on the RIAA etc. Ian Rogers, a pioneer in Winamp/ Gnutella who now works for Yahoo made a presentation tovarious record company execs which is worth reading from start to end but is particularly good in the section where he explains how DRM and the like actively dissaudes people from buying because if the inconvenience factor:

[...] Hundreds of millions of people visit Yahoo! each month. Yahoo! Music is the #1 Music site on the Web, with tens of millions of monthly visitors. Between 10 and 20 million people watch music videos on Yahoo! Music every month. Between 5 and 10 million people listen to radio on Yahoo! Music every month. But the ENTIRE subscription music market (including Rhapsody, Napster, and Yahoo!) is in the low millions (sorry, we don’t release subscriber numbers, but the aggregate number proves the point), even after years of marketing by all three companies. When you compare the experiences on Yahoo! Music, the order of magnitude difference in opportunity shouldn’t be a surprise: Want radio? No problem. Click play, get radio. Want video? Awesome. Click play, get video. Want a track on-demand? Oh have we got a deal for you! If you’re on Windows XP or Vista, and you’re in North America, just download this 20MB application, go through these seven install screens, reboot your computer, go through these five setup screens, these six credit card screens, give us $160 dollars and POW! Now you can hear that song you wanted to hear…if you’re still with us. Yahoo! didn’t want to go through all these steps. The licensing dictated it. It’s a slippery slope from “a little control” to consumer unfriendliness and non-Web-scale products and services.

I'll note in that regard that one reason why I read ebooks so much is that it helps avoid the hassle factor (and price) of getting English language paper books here in France. Having said that I just went to Wowio to look at the DayByDay ebooks and discovered that they are unavailable outside the US. Talk about inconveniencing the potential customer!

Finally, and more in the "what goes around comes around" note. Jerry Pournelle's readers have noted that Cory "Keep my work free" Doctorow appears to have played somewhat loose with work by another author that was most certainly not released to the public domain. I'm fairly sure that Doctorow's original posting was done in good faith blah blah blah but I can't help but note that if you're going to go all legal and icky picky on others you can expect others to do the same thing back to you. I'll also note that, as with the counterpunch article above, by not respecting other people's rights and the relevant law you end up alienating people who you really should be working to get on your side and this is a bad way to get your cause accepted by others.

PS Just for the record. I believe that
  1. Most electronic content is grossly overpriced. $1/song, $5/book, film or CD/DVD is about right (±50%)
  2. By adopting DRM and failing to cut prices publishers may well end up causing (if they haven't already done so) widespread acceptance of the idea that electronic content should be 100% free.
  3. Authors/artists should not be forced to give away their work for free electronically if they don't want to
  4. However Authors/artists benefit from giving away a good deal of it so they should do so