Online piracy is the greatest threat the entertainment industry ever has faced, according to organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America. Big entertainment lobbies have long stood strong against the rising tide of piracy, condemning peer-to-peer file sharing and prosecuting those found guilty of participating in or facilitating illegal sharing of copyrighted content. There is a lot more to the issue, of course, than these groups would have us believe.
The most recent in a long line of studies about piracy comes from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The report shows that while the music industry may be experiencing slower growth than it did in the early 2000s, total revenues have actually increased in recent years. Also, digital music sales, the sector competing most directly with illegal music downloads, continues to make up a larger and larger portion of industry profits.
The results of this study and dozens like it encourage a more thoughtful examination of the effects of piracy. On one hand, the strict stance of the entertainment industry is that piracy hurts both individual artists and the medium as a whole. However, there is a growing group of artists who are speaking out against this view.
Consider, for example, the ridiculously popular HBO series Game of Thrones, which happens to be the most pirated television show ever. Rather than lamenting the loss of potential sales, the show’s directors are flattered by the legions of fans who illegally download the show every week. It seems that they are more concerned with people enjoying their hard work than making a few extra dollars.
There is a similar trend in music. More and more artists are streaming their music for free online as well as accepting donations of any amount in exchange for albums, instead of sticking to a single price point for all sales. Artists following this route are convinced that the best thing to do for their music is to get as many people listening as possible. If distributing their music for free online helps accomplish that goal, that’s what they’ll do.
Piracy, politics, copyright law, and whatever other factors are at work create an exceedingly complicated environment for consumers. The lines of right and wrong regarding piracy are undoubtedly more blurred than ever. In light of the evidence that piracy doesn’t have the disastrous effect we’ve been warned about, and in some cases may even be beneficial, what are we to do?
While the obvious answer is always just to pay for everything and not worry about the possible negative impact that illegal downloads may have, there is always another side. One argument made in favor of piracy says that more often than not, when someone pirates content online, they aren’t making a decision between pirating and purchasing. They are deciding between pirating and not having the content at all.
If someone pirates an album or movie that they had no intention of buying in the first place, are they really hurting profits? It is childishly naïve to see every illegal download as a lost sale, yet this is the exact view of the entertainment lobbies.
As a final thought, imagine that you are a musician. A fan comes up to you and says that they downloaded your music and loved it. Assuming you aren’t just in it for the money, are you going to be disappointed about the few dollars you potentially lost from this person not buying your music, or are you going to be excited that there is someone else in the world who has been affected by your work? I think the people who are truly passionate about their art will overwhelmingly feel more excitement than disappointment.
After all, art—be it music, movies, video games, books, or whatever else is supposedly devastated by piracy—should be more about free creative expression and the sharing of ideas than about enforcing policy and making money.