On my social media outlets the other day, I happened to catch a link to a post on Lifehacker entitled, “Why I Stopped Pirating and Started Paying for Media”. As you can guess from the title, the author talks about their personal journey to legitimacy. In reading about their own experience, I got to thinking about my own dance with copyright, media, and the shady side of the internet.
Back in college in the late 1990’s, the big thing in the dorm computer network was the peer to peer (P2P) service Napster. It was in its heyday and I, like many of my peers, took advantage of it. I wasn’t one of those people who downloaded everything and anything they could find just for the hell of it, but I did download tracks I heard on the radio that I liked. I had a fondness for remixes and mashups which weren’t generally weren’t available on a CD so it was perfect for finding those kinds of music tracks as well. I still bought music so that I could have the liner notes and the physical CD itself, but I was able to try out different artists as well. (Those mp3s are long gone now, but I still have the CDs from that time.)
After Napster went kaput, I used KaZaa for a short period of time. The big difference between the two programs was that KaZaa offered P2P video files as well. I was still looking for mashups and remixes but I could also find videos for whatever my interest was at the time. Graphic war footage, pornography, funny video clips, you name it. The bigger issue with KaZaa was the prevalence of malicious viruses as well as purposefully mislabeled files intended to troll the viewer/listener. Hearing the virus alert go off got old very fast just as opening up a music or video file and finding something else. The luster wore off quickly and I stopped using KaZaa after a few months.
I didn’t really think much about copyright or ownership at that point in my life. I knew it was wrong, but not wrong enough to stop what I was doing. At the time, there were no digital music alternatives. iTunes had not arrived on the scene and Amazon was still selling books. The market that exists today was something that people spoke of breathlessly at conferences and industry trade shows. I never tried to justify it to myself that I was doing no harm, but that the harm I was doing was minimized since I only downloaded and never shared my files with others. (Yeah, I was that guy.) I know that doesn’t absolve me from guilt or blame, but it was enough of a mitigation to ease my conscious at the time.
After KaZaa, I completely stopped using P2P networks. I haven’t touched anything like since the early 00’s, not even a bit torrent. In that post P2P time period, I also stopped buying music or movies for the most part except for the occasional (and exceptional) artist or movie here and there. I would say that the two events are related but I will concede that I wasn’t going to movies or listening to the radio much either. After I bought my first iPod, I did get back into purchasing music but on a limited basis. The majority of my music still dates back to the pre-iTunes era as well as my movie collection. Overall, the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.
Fast forward to the present day.
Lately I’ve been noticing a lot more anti-piracy public service announcements (PSAs). It gets my attention at first because I loathe the term “piracy” for its inherent inaccuracy, but I’ll concede that “unauthorized file sharing” isn’t as sexy a term. Although, if you called it by the latter, it would certainly be less glamorous than the people who relish in the notion of being a pirate. Not many are going to take up the title of “sharer” (sharerer?) as it doesn’t have the same mystique as pirate.
I recently saw one of these PSAs before DVD episodes of the TV series Justified that I had borrowed from my library. This giant emblem would pop up on the screen with a dire warning about how I could go to jail, be fined, lose all my friends, and die alone if I copied this disc. Ordinarily, I’ve learned to tune out the FBI warning and other emblem related television warnings. But this warning then proceeded to give me a rundown of how it was protected internationally followed by the same warning in all of the official languages of the United Nations. Worse, it’s completely unskippable so that I have find a way to amuse myself through these two unrefundable minutes of my life. Since it magically knew to do this each time I started up my DVD player, these life stealing increments added up to the point where I became very sympathetic to people who download media illegally to avoid this time theft.
I also heard announcements on commercial radio urging people to call a number or go to a website to report media piracy in their area. The announcement spends more time telling people how to contact them than compelling reasons why they should do it other than (to paraphrase) it’s bad. It didn’t mention anything about a reward so I guess they are hoping for listeners to act out of the goodness of their hearts or (more likely) revenge on people who have wronged them or spiteful frame-ups intended to give someone a hard time. Nothing quite like a little McCarthy-like “rat on your friends, family, and neighbors” strategy to endear themselves to the public, but since I guess you can’t do worse in the public relations department after suing thousands of consumers over the course of years for very little return. Even then, this is hunting goldfish rather than the internet pirate website whales.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to feel this way, but my overall impression of copyright, intellectual property, and swirling vortex of issues around those two issues can be summed up in one word: unsatisfactory. Personally, there isn’t much quality television out there and even less quality movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. I’m willing to wait to television series or movies to come out on DVD and either borrow them from a friend or from the library. Even for the series that I’m following closely, there is nothing pressing that I need to watch right this moment. The price point is not sufficiently low enough to tempt me to purchase it for that instant gratification. It’s not to say that I haven’t been tempted, but the temptation is very fleeting.
Professionally, it feels like dancing through a landmine field. I am trying to steer people to the legitimate track of properly authorized and compensated copies of digital media, but society and business seems to conspire against this ideal. The social acceptance of media copying have lead me to the hardly surprising conclusion that people are copying the music and movies that they check out from the library at home. Over the course of my library years, I’ve even had the unfortunate experience of intervening when people were brazenly ripping CDs onto their laptops at the library. Some honestly didn’t know that it was a copyright infraction while others picked up on the fact that they could copy those CDs but in the privacy of their own homes. When it comes to eBooks, it’s tricky to guide people away from the ease of P2P downloading when the so called “friction” of eBook lending turns the question of borrowing into a overly long complex and extremely contextual answer. In trying to respect the owners of copyright, I end up showcasing all the madness that they have brought down on themselves in order to enforce it. It does nothing to encourage compliance nor engender respect for the concept or the laws supporting it.
Some may argue that librarians are not the stewards of copyright or even “the copyright police”. If you are someone who believes that, do me a favor and keep that stupid opinion to yourself. Librarians will not get a seat at a future copyright reform table if they abandon all forms of current enforcement. While I’m not advocating roaming the streets or even the library itself to patrol for infractions, the simple act of not intervening when infringement is found surrenders our moral high ground as custodians of other people’s work. How are we going to maintain their trust if we as information professionals make it clear that we intend to look the other way? It does not bode well for a future in which intellectual property rights are becoming increasingly important to individuals as well as businesses.
There is another end to my dissatisfaction with copyright; I can’t claim that I’m still perfect in this matter. I will look for legitimate ways to get digital media, but sometimes those outlets don’t exist. Some of the music tracks I find on YouTube don’t have a means to buy them on iTunes, Amazon, or the artist’s website. I have used one of the many Youtube to MP3 conversion sites out there to obtain a music track that I could not otherwise obtain. Perhaps some might find this to be hypocrisy on my part and I’m willing to concede that. I would say that while this is an action of last resort as a mitigating factor doesn’t make it completely right, but the lack of any legitimate sources left me with either using a convertor or not listening to the music at all. It’s not an ideal tiebreaker, but I rationalize that the artist would rather that I enjoy their music than let it go unnoticed or unappreciated.
With these things in mind, I await the next round of copyright and intellectual property reform. While I look forward to it, I also fear it. History has shown how the business interests have driven the protections beyond the original intent of the Constitution as well as years beyond the lives of content creators. The balance has tipped to the point of outright interference with creativity and innovation. I hope that it can swing back towards the interests of the people while giving ample provision for creators. Copyright is heading towards that moment, but I dare not guess when that moment will happen. I can only hope that it is soon.