North Wind And Sun

Popping the Piracy Bubble

Originally Published in The Amherst Student on 3 March 2009

One of the major questions circling around the case against torrent tracker The Pirate Bay is whether piracy translates into lost sales. The music industry naturally argues in the positive: A person downloading the new U2 album certainly won’t see the merit of buying it. The folks on the other side, conversely, question the merit of the music industry’s argument. “Seriously,” they say, their torrents maxing out at 100 kb/s, “why would we ever pay for this stuff?”

That, of course, is the $64,000 question. Why does anyone pay for music anymore? With the Internet acting as one big free Tower Records, what reason does anyone have for buying the new U2 album rather than just sucking it off of The Pirate Bay?

That logic, according to the RIAA and friends, has brought the music industry to its knees. Kids have moved on, shifting from wide-eyed teenyboppers to pale, greasy-haired loners with iTunes libraries the size of small moons. “They must be stopped,” these slick-suited professionals roar, fists thudding on mahogany desks, “Or they will destroy us all!”

But their cries invariably fall on deaf ears, as the teenagers doing the pirate shuffle in their darkened bedrooms can’t hear the roars of the RIAA over the sound of “Get On Your Boots” through their earbuds. So they continue on their merry way, downloading like there is no tomorrow.

The reason? Downloading is easy, so easy that it’s now a socially accepted part of just about every teenager’s life. Legally, it’s a different matter entirely. Over in Stockholm, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) is racking its collective brain in an attempt to figure out how to equate the disruptive act of file-sharing with the equally-disruptive act of their plummeting profit margins.

So far, folks aren’t convinced. Roger Wallis, a professor over at KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) appeared at the Pirate Bay trial last week and was asked the ever-important question of file-sharing-declining profits correlation. Wallis, an expert in this kind of stuff, took a 180 degree turn on what the prosecution wanted and argued that file sharing actually benefits the record industry. His reasoning was fairly simple: For many artists, file sharing is actually a form of exposure, and, as a result, increases the revenue drawn from live shows.

Moreover, Wallis alluded to a number of interesting developments over the past few years that have had tremendous effects on the record industry’s bread-and-butter consumer �” the teenager. The increasing prevalence of video games, Wallis argued, has stolen the time and money away from the big labels and shifted it towards video game companies like Nintendo and Sony. Kids these days, in short, just aren’t spending as much time and energy on buying music.

All of which makes sense. There is only so much time in the world, and if kids are spending more time playing Super Smash Brothers than they were back when the record industry wasn’t laying off huge percentages of its work force, then Wallis’ argument is solid.

The problem is that a lot of the folk who are so vehemently behind the Pirate Bay aren’t twelve-year-olds �” they are guys skirting the age of twenty. These gents, many of whom have jobs and girlfriends and bank accounts, argue that music should be free, man, and the Recording Industry has no right to force people to buy crappy music.

So, instead of buying crappy music or movies, they download them, filling their hard drives to the brim with downloaded tracks. These are the guys that are arguing for a complete overhaul of intellectual property laws while simultaneously undermining the industry that brings them the music they both malign and continue to consume.

They are, of course, only a subsidiary of the pirating populace. They argue, like many, including the aforementioned Wallis, that if they couldn’t download “Chinese Democracy” then there is very little chance they could ever hear it, undermining one of the recording industry’s central arguments. The industry isn’t blameless here either. Short of their more recent embrace of the online distribution model, the suits over at the RIAA have been notoriously slow at recognizing the shifting trends in music consumption. Still operating as if it’s 1980, the industry assumes that they can continue its tried-and-true distribution model and not see a decline in sales. The Internet has broken the record industry’s stranglehold over what people are listening to: Music listeners are pulling media now rather than having it pushed onto them. Rather than see the decrease in album sales as a product of shifting trends result in file sharing, the recording industry fires up their lawyers, suing anything with a pulse.

That, like a lot of things nowadays, just isn’t economically feasible anymore, and the RIAA has had to discontinue its lawsuit campaign. Hence, we come full circle. Seeing the ineffectiveness of suing someone’s bedridden grandmother, the RIAA shifted its focus to the so-called facilitators of file sharing �” websites like The Pirate Bay.

Where the current case goes is anyone’s guess, but from what has been displayed so far, The Pirate Bay crew is very clearly holding the upper hand. Regardless of who is legally in the right, the Pirate Party �” or so they have dubbed themselves �” has done an admirable job of presenting their case, unlike the prosecution, which doesn’t really seem to understand what’s going on.

But does anyone really? When it comes to all things digital, things are developing faster than most people can keep up. The music industry, sadly, also almost exclusively employs backwards-thinking dinosaurs, which certainly slows the adjusting process on their end. While piracy is still a fairly hard practice to justify ethically, seeing the record industry squirm in its ignorance is a prizewinning sight.

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