Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Can Internet Piracy Be Stopped Using Laws?

The demonstration by Wikipedia earlier this month in protest at legislation being debated in the US has brought an issue to the forefront of public awareness. The legislation is, to a large extent, motivated by the film industry to reduce or, possibly, stop online piracy.  In the face of public objections, the SOPA and PIPA bills failed in Congress.

This can be a complex argument, one about moral rights, or perhaps the alternative view is like the Communist concept that all property is theft; or perhaps it’s what it seems – taking property from someone without their permission is theft; pure and simple.  There's no doubt that the Motion Film Industry loses a considerable amount of money to piracy, as do other parts of the media. and while many individuals may think they are gaining something for nothing, or near as damn it, there's also a lot of people making a lot of money out of this, with their sole contribution being to have stolen the media.

All of us will have a stance on the subject of theft, and I guess that many reading this blog will believe that they are honest. In reality, most people have a moral compass that points somewhere near the total honesty mark and most of the time it stays there, keeping them from personal shame and out of gaol. But pass by a strong enough incentive; say a million pounds, Euros or Dollars left unattended and without any clear ownership, a surfeit of CCTV and security personnel, a handy knapsack large enough to carry the money in and my guess is that many of us will find the needle bending away from the honesty marker. But although the money is sitting there without an obvious owner, it still belongs to someone else.  The same can be said of films, music and books.

Research has shown that even with our moral compass so strongly pulled  (perhaps by the convenient million mentioned above) , many of us would still do the right thing which, depending on your own definition, may be walking on by or phoning the police to report the cash. It may be your religion that stops you from pocketing the money, if you have one, although I don’t believe there’s any evidence to suggest that believers in a God are more or less susceptible to succumbing to temptation than non believers. Or you may just have a good old fashioned, and reasonable, fear of imprisonment.
But streaming a film, downloading a music track or copying an eBook off the Internet for free when the owner of the item hasn’t waived his or her rights to a royalty hardly feels like theft to many  people, the kind of people who wouldn't normally consider themselves as thieves.  But we all know of people who obtain such material over the Internet, either by directly streaming it from illegal sites or perhaps 'buying' the goods at ridiculously low prices.  I personally think that some people think that if they've paid for such goods, at prices that don't reflect the market, it must be legal.  I submit that they are willingly, if unwittingly, receiving stolen goods.

Then again, there's another side to this, though.  While reasonable, intelligent people can see that the receiving of manufactured media from suspect sources - be it Blu-rays, CDs, Books - is likely to be stolen goods, the same logic doesn't stack up with purely digital media - it's just ones and noughts, isn't it? 

However, if you check out eBay for eBooks and you will find compendiums of best sellers on there for peanuts, compiled from material 'in the public domain' and 'not infringing anyone's copyright, in line with eBay policy'.  My view is that these claims are poppycock.  Just because someone posted a copy of Dan Brown's latest book on the Internet, for free or for a payment, that doesn't mean it's a legal copy or that Mr Brown has waived his intellectual property rights.  And shame on eBay for failing to police such sales.

However, book companies, like record and film companies, aren't making it too easy for the moral compass to stay pointing at 'honest'.  Take a look at this screenshot from Amazon:

It doesn't take a genius to see where I'm going with this; I have a preference to promote electronic books and a real desire to read this particular book.  OK, the hardback version is being discounted because they printed too many - I've ranted on about the failure of the long established and well educated book marketers to predict book runs on several blogs previously.  I know that if I wait a couple of months I'll get this book in The Works for about a fiver and my hunch is that with all the manufacturing costs, shipping, storage etc, they'll still make a pound a book profit then, even after The Works have taken their slice off the top.  So where is the £12.99 for a stream of ones and noughts going to?  Will Walter Issacson get an enhanced royalty from those sales?  I doubt it.

I mention this because I know this book is one of the books available 'not infringing anybody's copyright in line with eBay policy' on eBay, on a CD with thousands of other such 'public domain' books, total bundle price: a couple of quid.  I won't buy them, I'm not a thief and I don't knowingly receive stolen goods.  But the industry - whether it is the film, music or print industry - could do more to make honest ownership easier, still make a profit and could avoid introducing laws in the US that somehow manage to affect law abiding people in countries they should have no right to legislate against.  (I would protest against UK legislation that affected legitimate rights of US residents in their own country, too)

If the various industries price their products fairly then there will be less incentive for people to steal their property.  It won't solve the temptation of thousands of books for a couple of pounds on eBay, so there will still need to be some improved sanctions (and I think that the likes of eBay could do a lot more than they do to manage this - just accepting a legal statement isn't diligent enough by any means), but laws don't stop crime, they only provide a mechanism to punish those who choose to break them.  Fairness, however, disincentivises broadly honest people from turning to crime.


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