The Internet Is Already Broken

The internet is already broken, but who broke it, and why? Pundits, many of them drawing pay in one form or another from those who benefit financially from intellectual property hijacking, effectively killed the artist-friendly SOPA/PIPA bills recently before Congress. Most ‘netizens of my acquaintance see this as a great victory, an example of the people-driven democratic power of the free internet. I respectfully disagree, because freedom isn’t free and free goods, like free speech, come at a cost. In ten years of often-heated discussion of internet intellectual property issues, I’ve heard every argument offered by the pro-hijacking multitudes, and no matter how much rhetoric and sophistry in which they’re clothed, they all boil down to a single rather amazing statement, couched in a number of ways. There’s the good old, “The internet came along and changed everything, so your old ethics and values no longer apply; therefore, I’ll play on your lawn no matter how loud you yell or how hard you shake your puny, wrinkled fist!” or, “My stealing doesn’t hurt you at all, because you still have the thing I stole!”, or simply, “Fuck you, I’ll do what I please, because you can’t stop me.” The problem is that none of those statements are true, except possibly the last one.

Those are not the only arguments, merely those germane to the situation; I left out stuff like, “The old middlemen screwed artists, the same, or worse.” which is an open admission that IP hijacking is in fact detrimental to artists and the arts, besides which, those old middlemen paid artists something for the right to exploit their work, while IP hijackers pay the artist nothing. And then there’s, “My stealing your work product is actually helping you, by exposing you to new audiences!”, which may seem to hold some value, until one realizes that the artist’s work is being ‘exposed’ by an individual or individuals that didn’t pay, to a new audience that ALSO won’t pay, or the classic, “You can make it up in T-shirt sales/touring/band logo nose rings”, which is basically saying, “You’ll have to run your business at a loss, but you’ll make it up in volume!“,  at least, to anyone whose business is music and not nose rings;  in other words, a professional musician or composer. (remember us? we’re the ones that make the art)  Now, I’m not saying we haven’t nor won’t continue to see sweeping changes in media industries wrought by this incredible digital revolution, but I’m comfortable in saying this: the internet changed nothing. Okay, I’ll have to modify that statement; on the face of it, it conflicts with the sentence that preceded it, but hear me out. What’s changed is nothing of substance nor of any import, whatsoever. You see, I try to live my life by a set of principles that were designed ages ago to guide me through any storm of human controversy or conflict, and while circumstances may change, the principles don’t. I won’t presume to educate you on what those principles are; I’ll assume you’re an adult, since you’re reading this, and it says “fuck” up there in the preceding paragraph, and also that some modicum of the Judeo-Christian ethos has rubbed off on you at some point, since you’re reading it in English. Taoists, Buddhists and Hindi can excuse yourselves; you already know what I’m gonna say; if you’re a sociopath, stick around, it’s going to get interesting.

Moving along, from the basic principles of individual  behavior, let’s explore social behavior, because it’s way more fun than flogging the Seventh Commandment. In all countries that can truly be called civilized, (and even in some that can’t, like our own) government is held to be ‘by the consent of the governed’; the people have the power, (yay!) and we can all collectively decide, if we wish, that all artists must work without being paid, that their work product is our culture; something owned collectively by our society as a whole, and that nobody should be forced to pay for culture, ever again. Do you see a problem with that? I see two, actually, and maybe three, if you’re opposed to any sort of socialism; see, that’s what we’re discussing, democratic socialism, which I’ll allow can have some wonderfully beneficial effects. Public libraries and our public school system are pretty good examples of how we make portions of our culture available to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, to the benefit of all. See, not all great minds are born into great families, and we wouldn’t want to miss out on the next baby Einstein or Mozart, just cuz the parents couldn’t pay for MIT or Juilliard, so maybe no problem there, at all, except that socialism should have limits; unrestrained socialism/collectivism can lead to all sorts of ills. Have a look at Soviet Russia or Maoist China, if you don’t believe me.  Problem two is that while intellectual property is made up of ideas, which are essentially free, (though one could argue that a trained mind will produce better ideas, and training costs money) the realization of those ideas requires capital, which ain’t free. You don’t get to hear that new song in my head, until I convince a couple of musicians to come over and rehearse, (costs money) stand them in front of some microphones (that cost money) in my studio, which features climate control and lotsa snazzy blinking lights, (that cost money) arrange, edit and mix the recordings (I think you’re getting the picture) master the result, (mo’ money) and distribute the product, which while it costs way less than it once did, still isn’t anywhere close to free, and that’s a pretty big problem; anyone who’s willing to do all that for free is by definition an amateur, and thus not terribly good at it, so the quality almost certainly suffers. Which brings us to problem number one. If you force all the artists to work for free, then in the name of society at large, you’ve enslaved a whole class of people, and nine out of ten Tibetan monks agree that owning slaves is bad for the soul; it makes you lazy, effete and entitled. Worse yet, slaves make lousy art.

We live in a capitalist society, which is perhaps not an unalloyed benefit; capitalism, like democracy, must be curbed, because unchecked greed is just as disastrous to the general welfare as unbridled democracy. Too much capitalism, you get cycles of economic collapse followed by depression; too much democracy, you get bread and circuses, accompanied by a crumbling army and infrastructure, so we in the West strive for a balance. In order for capitalism and democracy to function, we need enlightened self-interest, rather than naked competition, and we also need the rule of law. Piracy, held in check, acts as a safety valve against consumer abuse by the entertainment mega-conglomerate oligarchy, a balance of force against copyright, (and coincidentally, helping to keep abandoned works in print) but the evidence is plentiful that we currently have far too much piracy. Think otherwise? How can it not be, when a college sophomore can say such a thing as, “Illegal downloading isn’t stealing, because you can’t get caught”, words quoted from my local paper. (a good argument for revoking high school diplomas retroactively, in my opinion) This stunning moral failure on the individual level is carried out daily, en masse, by millions of internet freeloaders downloading massive amounts of content from sites that feature advertising, which is where quasi-legal file sharing ends, and intellectual property hijacking begins.

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