net.wars: I think we're all pirates on this bus
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 April 2009
So the Pirate Bay Four have been found guilty, sentenced to a year in jail, and ordered ordered to pay 30 million kronor (lotta money) in damages to Big Media (hella big). How to make martyrs, guys.
Except: from the entertainment industry's point of view the best thing to come out of the trial shouldn't be either the verdict or the damages. It should be the news of the site's enrichingprofitability and ownership, exposed to the non-Swedish-speaking world by Andrew Brown, first in a blog posting and then in Guardian article. Both sets of revelations came from the native Swedish newspapers which, of course, few outside Sweden can actually read.
Shouldn't the thought of possibly further enriching the heir to a fortune who is a supporter of extreme right-wing groups give Pirate Bay users pause? You'd think the entertainment industry would take advantage of this to play, as Sir Humphrey Appleby is advised in "Man Overboard", the man instead of the ball.
In The Register, Andrew Orlowski has speculated that the English-language media have failed to pick up on Brown's revelations because…I don't know, everyone is too pro-"freetard" or something. It's more likely that, lacking familiarity with the language, culture, and politics of Sweden, they aren't comfortable reporting them.
As much as The Pirate Bay is a useful site if you're looking for stuff to download for free, the site can't really make the same arguments many others can: that they don't really know what they're hosting (YouTube, torrent search sites). The site is much too neatly organized and catalogued. Not that it's clear the site's owners have any interest in making such an argument: they've been arrogantly defiant with respect to the trial and earlier threats. It's one thing to sit down and argue principles and try to change laws you disagree with; it's another to openly jeer at the law, effectively behaving like a cartoon character dancing on the edge of a cliff yelling, "Come get me!"
I've argued all along that there ought to be a distinction between personal, non-profit copying and commercial copying. The Pirate Bay falls in the middle. The site's users certainly are engaging in non-profit, personal copying. And the site isn't dealing in commercial copying in the sense that I meant originally, in that it's not selling copies (which would be an absolutely clear diversion of the market from legitimate sources). But if you believe the Swedish press it is making real money from advertising. Unless it opens its books for inspection by the public, we have no way of telling how much of that is actually profit, how much goes to pay the site's no doubt substantial server and bandwidth costs, and how much, if any, is used to support Piratbyrån, the political party aiming to change copyright law in Sweden.
It ought to be clear by now – though apparently it's not – to entertainment companies that attacking file-sharing sites isn't getting them anywhere. Yes, they can point to having closed down a number of sites, but that's like boasting that you've cut 1,000 heads off the Lernaean Hydra. What a boast like really says is how much bigger the monster is now than when you started: you still can't say you killed it, or even that you've scared it a little bit. Year on year, remorselessly, no matter how many people they've threatened or sites they've prosecuted, file-sharing has grown both in usage and in breadth. Plus, the publicity that attends every case is serving excellently to spread the word to people who might otherwise have never heard of file-sharing. Wired News reports that since the case started The Pirate Bay's user base has grown to 22 million and the site is profiting from its new anonymization VPN service.
In terms of breadth, there are still plenty of gaps in what you can find online, but over the years those have continued to narrow as niche interest groups start up their own sites to share old, obscure, and commercially unavailable material. What porn fanciers can do, tennis nuts can do better.
More to the point, entertainment industry attacks on file-sharing are doing for file-sharing sites what Prohibition did for the Mafia: turning them into sympathetic heroes who are just nobly trying to help their fellow citizens. The Pirate Bay may not look like a speakeasy, but what else is it, really?
The problem for the entertainment industry is that decades of television and radio broadcasts have trained users that viewing and listening without payment at the point of consumption is a normal state of affairs. In that sense, downloading torrents is far more like the way television and radio have presented themselves than paid downloads or buying CDs and DVDs. Ironically, US commercial television is now so heavily ad-laden that watching it now makes the trade-off of providing content in return for viewers' attention to advertising much more explicit – and viewers don't like it one bit.
In the end, The Pirate Bay guys may sound like posturing jerks, but they're right: they may go to jail but file-sharing will live on even if they turn out to be wrong about The Pirate Bay's own invulnerability. The entertainment industry might just as well adopt the slogan, "We won't stop until everyone's a pirate."
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Hi, Roberts! You'd make a great dread pirate... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).