The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Piracy in Perspective

Jan. 27, 2012, 12:27 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Piracy in PerspectiveThe intricacies of law – those giant red books that law students tote around, or the very phrase “tort reform” – are about as interesting to most people as 1920s Hungarian silent film. The Stop Online Piracy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) Acts brought to the fore today’s most meaningful legal issue. Many websites (Google, Facebook and Reddit, among others) responded forcefully, in part for their own survival, to the prospect of increased regulation. Wikipedia’s daylong blackout, the most prominent of the protests, embodied the passionate assault on SOPA and PIPA. The Internet’s users and providers, as disunited and disorganized as they are, managed to string together a strong, collective response.


The battle between Congress and our loyal search engines, stalking-enablers and information-providers was styled like this: entrepreneurs against the entertainment titans, providers of absurd salaries to equally absurd figures like the Kardashians; a battle of the new and just versus the old and stubborn.


It’s true that the entertainment industry is off. It’s a massive business. It makes enormous sums. Its stars are paid in millions, often for doing little more than showing a cameraman their lavish lifestyle. I find myself wondering why certain celebrities are famous. Sometimes even trusty Wikipedia can’t provide a solid answer. Those who criticize Wall Street for absurd pay scales can find ready targets on the silver screen. Finding its enemy, the Web unleashed its anger with ferocity. They claimed it to be a defense of freedom. To some extent, they had the right to. Linking to illegal content probably should not be made illegal.


The content, however, remains a problem. Piracy is rarely discussed as an ethical issue, but it is one. It was created by people who rely on its purchase for income and who have the right to expect it. As commercialism has crept into art and the markets for music, movies and TV grown, the personal connections we held with rock stars and actors have diminished. No longer would one feel bad for shortchanging an artist, a producer or a studio. Thinking in the short term, it does not pain me when Justin Bieber loses income or when Steven Spielberg’s movies lose a small part of their attendance. They will make millions with or without my patronage.


Many take umbrage with the proliferation of artists who achieve fame merely on their ability to appeal, if only providing modest pleasure, to the widest audiences and therefore be more profitable. That perceived lack of intrinsic value often provides the little justification Web users need to download relentlessly – why should they have to pay for things whose prices are driven up in pursuit of profits, and whose worth is so little? Some, not concerned with the quality of the work but with the motivations of its producers, simply feel no obligation to pay. The Free Culture movement and others believe that copyright laws simply detract from our culture and our freedoms. Most, however, take the motivations and manners of the entertainment industry to be an unspoken justification for piracy.


The practice of piracy has perhaps made the entertainment industry the monolith it is. The distortion of the market that is caused by people downloading instead of buying contributes to that as well. In legal consumption, consumers wield immense power. In buying products, consumers lend approval, funds and encouragement for future projects. Downloading content forfeits that power. It absents consumers from economic dialogue. It is a comfort that the market for media is so large that mere scale prevents this from largely distorting social interests.


But on the margins, those actions can push smaller producers, especially of niche content, out of the market. Producers lose their incentive to produce up-and-coming artists. New genres and artistic adventure are reduced when companies realize that being adventurous in their actions is much less economically rational than producing typical content for guaranteed markets. Our public culture becomes vapid and boring because monetary concerns overpower artistic ones, in large part due to the reduced overall market.


The piracy market is just like any other illegal one: black, off the grid, and difficult to analyze or track. As such, its contribution to society’s tastes is greatly diminished. The overall consumer base is reduced. The content produced, the choices in creative thought require greater consideration of the commercial element. Maximally profitable content will be pushed to the front, diminishing the diversity and adventurousness of our media. So maybe we, as conscious consumers, should change our habits and realize the effect they have on culture, which we hope to entertain us for years to come.


Spencer knows you wouldn’t download a car, but would you download his column? Let him know at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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