01 Jun 2009

File Sharing is Not Piracy

I recently read an article describing the arguments on both sides of an RIAA lawsuit against Joel Tenenbaum. From the article:

"...Why does [the RIAA] still insist on DRM protection for many digital music stores when it knows that’s exactly what drives music fans to illegal file-sharing sites [emphasis added]?"

Here is one of the many irksome and often-heard mischaracterizations of the issue, the idea that file sharing per se is illegal. If that were true, the act of reading this blog would make you a criminal. That's right, reader—simple web surfing constitutes file sharing. When you go to www.flickr.com and look at all the pretty pictures, what is flickr doing if not sharing files with you? (Yes, pictures are files, even if you only see them in your web browser.) Let's hear it one more time:

File sharing is not illegal. The Internet, after all, is one big sharer of files. We just call them websites because we use a web browser to access them, and they don't quite fit the concept of a "file" like the ones we've grown accustomed to having clutter our desktops. It's all just zeroes and ones.

So why, then, do we keep hearing about lawsuits against file sharers and those who enable them? There is a subset of file sharing that is illegal -- the RIAA calls it theft when someone downloads an album without paying, and that someone probably calls it "making a copy," or, what's more likely, they don't think about it at all.

Unfortunately for the anti-copyright movement, the latter attitude seems to predominate over any reasoned defense of piracy. I see headlines on a daily basis decrying the draconian nature of the RIAA, but what I don't see ever is a moral defense of the downloader's actions. Pirates tend to use arguments like "CDs are too expensive," or "DRM is criminally restrictive," both of which have merit in as far as they are complaints of the record industry's conduct, but it amounts to saying that two wrongs make a right: "because the RIAA is so evil, it's not wrong to steal from it," goes the train of thought. This clearly isn't a defensible position, nor is it one that's central to the issue, so I'm going to leave it alone.

To focus solely on the flimsy morals of the pirate, or only on the despicable practices of the industry, however, is to miss the bigger picture. Copyright law is broken. Technology is changing the landscape of our society at a speed that many social institutions simply can't match. It would be nice, at least, to have a legal system that can keep up.