Here is a hypothetical scenario for you. Imagine I would want to create a new service – sot of an open data repository. I would simply provide users with space, and some means to catalog and organize the “stuff” they would “donate” towards the service. Anyone could come and add data to the repository, and any member would be able to access and consume that data at no cost. Let’s also say that this repository would not be geared towards sharing original works, but rather for popular and sought after content both copyrighted and public domain alike. It would store books, magazines, movies, music, etc..
What do you call such a service?
Well, it depends on the domain. If we place this service in analog space, we would call it a public library. People donate used books and media, and the library loans them out to the patrons for free. Libraries are valuable institutions, and they have an important role in facilitating exchange of knowledge and cataloging our cultural heritage. No one in their right mind is going to say they are harmful.
What if we put such a service in a digital space, and allow people to donate and lend out digital copies. Do you know what we call such a service? Well, maybe I’m off base here but I’d call such a service a torrent tracker. You may disagree, but think about this for a second.
Isn’t a torrent site at least a bit like a gigantic public library with a very broad selection and limitless supply of copies of the content you are seeking for. Aren’t file sharing sites simply a translation of the analog concept of a public library into twenty first century digital landscape of the web? Aren’t they nearly the same in spirit and mission? Both types of services aim to facilitate sharing and spreading of knowledge – it’s just that one can do it much more efficiently than the other.
Tell me what is the difference between these two scenarios:
- Going to a public library, taking out a movie, watching it and then bringing it back
- Downloading a movie from a torrent site, watching it and then deleting it to make space on your HD
The main difference is the method by which you obtain the movie and the format in which you obtain it. On one hand we have an analog method of distribution and a physical copy (a DVD). On the other hand we have a digital distribution and a digital copy. The digital download is faster, and the digital copy is more durable (it does not wear out due to use). Other than that though, the two scenarios are very similar. In both cases you get to see your movie free of charge. In both cases the copyright holders don’t get paid. And yet somehow one of these scenarios is considered a “lost sale”. Something is wrong here.
One could argue that in the first scenario you are compelled to return the physical copy back to the library. There is no such compulsion in the second one. Then again, I could argue that a library patron could easily copy the DVD before returning it. Besides, duplicating a library owned DVD for personal use still does not affect the copyright holder. It does not make them any poorer.
So if you take a stance against file sharing, and argue that it is harmful to copyright holders, then wouldn’t you also be able to say the same about public libraries? After all they are in the same business of distributing copyrighted content for free. Are they exempt from scorn and hatred only because they are fairly inefficient at what they do? Or do copyright holders tolerate them just because they are sort of built into the fabric of our society and are protected by tradition and existing social norms.
I leave you with this little nugget: if public libraries did not exist, would it be possible to establish a library system today? Or would they be facing the same legal issues as said file sharing sites? Think about this. I believe you know the answer to these questions. What does this say about the current effort to squash and de-legalize file sharing? Are we really doing the right thing here? Or are we killing a wonderful new emergent public institution that is still in it’s infancy?