Monday, 23 February 2009

File-sharers fight back?

The MAC281 Cyberculture lecture this week dealt mainly with the responses file-sharers have given in relation to years of music industry rhetoric which has sought to label them as criminals. I've included a link to the slides I used in the session below (best viewed in full screen due to small text on screen grabs):



One of the issues that tends to get brought up time and again by filesharers is the issue of copyright infringement in a digital age. In the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything the authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams identify a demographic born between 1977 and 1996 as the first to 'grow up in a digital age ... bathed in bits' (2008: 47), which they refer to as the Net Generation or N-Geners. They claim that this generation is distinct from previous ones due to the myriad ways in which they not only consume media, but scrutinise it, and re-purpose it.

Tapscott and Williams go on to suggest that these N-Genres are not passive consumers but rather, are driven by a desire 'for choice, convenience, customization and control by designing, producing and distributing products themselves' (ibid: 52). They go on to highlight the creation of Napster in June 1999 by the then-student Shawn Fanning as an example whereby a young man with an idea was able to create a piece of software to share audio files amongst friends, which then went on to pose a serious threat to the established distribution model for the music industry.

A similar example can be found in the guise of Jesse Jordan who was a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, during 2002. Jordan developed an internal network search engine which enabled anyone on the institutes network to search the public folders hosted on the network, which just so happened to include music files. When the RIAA caught on to this side-effect of the network search tool, they branded Jesse a pirate and demanded he pay them $150,000 per infringement - a total of $15,000,000 (see Lawrence Lessig, 2004 for more details) - money he clearly didn't have.

With some guesses putting the amount of web traffic now taken up by file-sharing as high as 50%, it would seem like these N-Geners are bringing about a philosophical rethink with regards to how we make sense of copyright and intellectual property in a digital age:
The ability to remix media, hack products, or otherwise tamper with consumer culture is their birthright, and they won't let outmoded intellectual property laws stand in their way (Tapscott & Williams, 2008: 52)
The emergence of Web 2.0 platforms and user generated content has further entrenched this type of activity. In a more recent book Lessig (2006: 196) recounts the example of digital creativity in the guide of Anime Music Videos (AMVs) whereby young people spend hours re-editing anime cartoons to perfectly match a piece of music before posting their creations to the Web. One company in particular, Wind-Up Records, didn't see this as an example of creativity but rather, as an example of copyright violation and ordered a take-down. Instead of seizing this as an opportunity to connect with fans or engage with customers they assumed a fairly traditional position.

It is this atypical type of industry reaction which irks the N-Geners and actually stands in the way of creativity and innovation, and helps contribute to a sense of 'net banditry' (Rojeck, 2005) amongst file-sharers. Less than a decade ago the mainstream music industry was dominated by a handful of global players - EMI, SONY/BMG, Universal, Time Warner - who had an established business model which had served them well for many years. Key to this was a firm grip on distribution outlets for their products. Music had to be written, recorded, produced, marketed and physically transported around the world - an expensive business. The creation of services like Napster and zero-cost search tools played a part in transforming that traditional relationship. The advent of digital audio compression techniques (e.g. MP3) also played a substantial part in that process. We shouldn't forget that these developments helped bring about an attitudinal shift.

To paraphrase the recent Creative Freedom Foundation campaign, the distinction between using and copying artefacts in a digital age has become blurred. The movement towards digitisation, rapid search and zero-cost distribution has enabled a remix or 'mash-up' culture that enables people to be creative in new and exciting ways. We need a legal system which reflects that. We need a copyright system which is fit for a digital age We need a legal system that reflects the behaviour of a multitude of people who breach current intellectual property laws on a daily basis.

We don't need what the New Zealand authorities have been proposing recently whereby ISPs will be forced to take down internet connections and websites of anyone accused (nb: not actually convicted) of copyright infringement. Section 92A assumed that people would be guilty upon accusation irrespective of the circumstances. There are all sorts of problems with this law which TorrentFreak cover here. A small reprieve came today when John Key announced that the implementation would be delayed until March 27th.

This might be a temporary reprieve however and more pressure needs to be applied, especially when the lobbying power of the world's copyright holders are in play. They are rich, powerful and organised. What happens in New Zealand could easily happen elsewhere if pressure is not applied. The Irish music industry (as represented by IRMA) has already succeeded in getting one of the biggest Irish ISPs to block access to file-sharing sites and it won't be long before others are forced to follow - this is despite the fact that sites like The Pirate Bay have not been deemed illegal in Ireland. An organisation with deep pockets has pressured an ISP into censoring the Internet on behalf of a commercially driven entity.

What does this tell us about censorship and network neutrality? It tells us we should be worried about the future of digital content.

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