Slashdot and Piracy

Wow, the past few days Slashdot has been putting up quite a few pro-piracy articles. I think it’s been one a day for the past few days. It’s generally dismal to read some of the comments there.

First, there was “Slashdot: The Pirates Will Always Win, Says UK ISP” / The Guardian: The pirates will always win, says Carphone’s Dunstone

Slashdot summary:

“The head of UK ISP TalkTalk, Charles Dunstone, has made the comment ahead of the communications minister’s Digital Britain report that illegal downloading cannot be stopped. He said ‘If you try speed humps or disconnections for peer-to-peer, people will simply either disguise their traffic or share the content another way. It is a game of Tom and Jerry and you will never catch the mouse. The mouse always wins in this battle and we need to be careful that politicians do not get talked into putting legislation in place that, in the end, ends up looking stupid.’ Instead he advocates allowing users ‘to get content easily and cheaply.'”

First of all – he’s right in saying that it’s impossible at the ISP level to stop pirates for any length of time. As far as I can tell from the article, that’s what Dunstone’s argument was. Unfortunately, most people have generalized this correct observation into the incorrect claim (in the Slashdot summary) that “illegal downloading cannot be stopped”. Even the Guardian gets their headline wrong (“The pirates will always win, says Carphone’s Dunstone”), which again misrepresents what Dunstone said. I agree with Dunstone that legal downloading services are part of the fight against piracy – although, most of those are already in place. ITunes, Netflix Download service, Amazon Video-on-demand, etc are already there. Additionally, with sufficient legal pressure – we could also drive piracy down. The most obvious method is to go after filesharing hubs – like Pirate Bay. That’s a different method of attack than sifting internet traffic for illegal filesharing. What would happen then, is that piracy is marginalized. People don’t want to jump from one website to another every few months – so most people will just stop trying to skirt the law, and do it the legal way. Only the die-hard pirates will stick with it. The fact of the matter is that you don’t have to stop 100% of piracy. This isn’t a war that has one of two outcomes: you “win” or you “lose”. A world with 95% or 100% piracy is a very different world than one with 10% or 20% piracy. In both cases, piracy exists, but in the first case, creativity gets smothered.

What’s odd is the number of people who buy-in to the false dichotomy. They wouldn’t buy-in to similar dichotomies like: “shoplifting cannot be stopped” or “littering cannot be stopped”. We can do the same thing to piracy that we do to shoplifting or littering: minimize it so that its damage is minimized.

I read an article by Clay Shirky recently that seemed to imply that piracy cannot be eliminated because, if they have to, pirates will resort to the “sneakernet” – i.e. manually sending a hard-drive from one location to the other for duplication. The whole thing takes place without the internet involved. I couldn’t help but think, “well, duh – if pirates have to resort to those kinds of actions to pirate stuff, then piracy rates will be extremely low because it’s just too inconvenient for a large majority of people. That means it won’t be very threatening”.

Slashdot, of course, leaves out the fact that Charles Dunstone doesn’t call for the elimination of copyright or surrender to pirates, but, rather:

Charles Dunstone said, the solution is education about the benefits of respecting copyright coupled with services that allow consumers “to get content easily and cheaply”.

Obviously, his comment about “getting content easily and cheaply” means legal download services – like iTunes.

Then, Ben Goldacre’s article in the Guardian got posted: (Slashdot: Lies, Damned Lies, and the UK Copyright Industry, “Illegal downloads and dodgy figures”, BadScience: Home taping didn’t kill music). I generally like Ben Goldacre. He’s probably most famous for combating the anti-vaccination groups. Most of his article dealt with unrealistic numbers of lost sales due to piracy. I think it’s perfectly fine to raise issues about bad numbers. Unfortunately, he makes some jabs at the whole copyright system, implying that piracy isn’t a bad thing. He seem to buy-in to the questionable results of the Norwegian “pirate” study. And the title of his article is rather odd (“Home taping didn’t kill music”) since his article has nothing to do with home taping. The problem, of course with the “Home taping didn’t kill music” argument is that home-taping is really inconvenient. It’s like the “sneakernet”. Internet piracy gives you free copies of digital media (read: perfect copying) and everything is there (often hours after its release). Home-taping on the other hand, gives you a degraded copy, you have to get a physical copy to duplicate in the first place, and you have to borrow that copy from someone else who has it. This means you probably can’t get what you want because your friend doesn’t have it either, and if he does have it, you feel like a leech when you ask to borrow lots of music.

Then comes the article saying that the Pirate Party has won a seat in the EU Parliament. (Link to my article examining the Pirate Party’s arguments) At least it’s only one seat out of 736. They’re hoping to make the most of it though, by being a one-issue party. They’re also hoping that other political parties chase votes by taking up their cause. It’s rather sad. The Pirate Party / Pirate Bay always remind me of the “killing the golden goose” story. They’re sharpening up their knives without understanding the economic issues going on with digital media. For a real treat, and to raise your blood pressure, just read some of the Slashdot comments. I feel frequently insulted by slashdot comments whenever the issue of piracy comes up. A few favorites:

All works intellectual creativity of should be given away free. We should only have to pay for retail services, and stuff that China and the rest of the world manufactures… not for what America does best. (Source)

Copyright is the antithesis of free speech. (Source)

Everyone who applies copyright restrictions, deep inside, knows doing so is wrong and screws all humanity over.

If you don’t want something copied, don’t release it. (Source)

Sigh. I never would’ve guess that working hard to make great software and earn a living would’ve provoked these kinds of reactions, just because I won’t give away years of work.

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