Friday, September 25, 2009

The File Sharing Controversy in Britain: Are We Americans Seeing It Wrong?

In America over the past decade, the debate has been over whether file sharing is detrimental to the music industry. Well, certainly the record and radio companies are suffering. They blame file sharing, though the evidence points more toward the corporations, sabotaging themselves through increasingly expensive mergers, acquisitions, and contracts which buried them in debt. Some musicians are taking the record companies' side, while others embrace file sharing, saying it's no more or less destructive than taping used to be. In my last two posts, it seems, I viewed the controversy over a proposed British law through my American experience. The law would ban file sharers convicted of music piracy from the Internet. Apparently there's no controversy over whether file sharing's good or bad over there: both sides agree that it's bad. What they're arguing about is whether the file sharers should be banned from the Internet. So I misconstrued the real issue. So did Perez Hilton and any other American who took sides in the British brouhaha.

On one side, you have Radiohead, who post their albums online before they release them on CD (and now on LP), plus members of Pink Floyd and Blur. They form the core of the Featured Artists Coalition. On the other, you have the British record industry, plus certain musicians who have taken it upon themselves to speak for the industry, including Lily Allen and James Blunt. On one side, you have moderates who believe that file sharing is harmful but file sharers shouldn't be given the Internet equivalent of the death penalty. On the other, you have the record industry and its corporate tools taking the extremist position that file sharing will kill the industry, and therefore file sharers should be banned — and the American record industry cartel, the RIAA, and its militant army of savage corporate lawyers add that they should be thrown in jail for decades and fined tens of thousands of dollars minimum. The issue is not whether file sharing should be tolerated, like in the US, where the two opposing positions are taken by the tech companies (for) and the record companies (against), with musicians taking one or the other extreme. In the UK, the issue is punishment: should it be lenient or draconian?

So I and my fellow Americans have been taking sides in the wrong controversy. Our controversy. We see RIAA allies Metallica and Garth Brooks attacking Napster back in 2000 whenever we hear Lily Allen making them look calm and rational in comparison. We Americans should remember, though, that the UK is not the US. Some of the rights and freedoms we take for granted here simply don't exist over there; some of them never did, which is why the American Founders and their successors established them in the first place. We were (and are) fighting against or for the RIAA over the definition of "free speech" as protected under the US Constitution; they're haggling over penalties, leaving the definition of file sharing as "piracy" unchallenged.

Part of the problem is the definition of "music piracy". Properly, it should be defined narrowly: copying in order to sell for a profit without the copyright owners' consent. If it sounds like theft, it is. But home taping and file sharing are copying in order to have (or give away) a copy of a commercial product for free. Before Napster, it was tapes; after, it was MP3s. Both formats are inferior: tapes to LPs, MP3s to CDs. The thing is, though, that most people simply cannot afford all the music that's released; there's too much of it, and budgets tend to be limited, partly by the fact that people have to pay for other things, such as bills and groceries, not to mention all the many forms of entertainment other than music. But the record companies are structurally incapable of distinguishing between piracy and home copying. Both reduce their potential profits in exactly the same way. And since the record industry is dying, home copying is the easiest culprit to blame, though corporate bloat is probably the real reason (because it lowers the quality of the product). Really, it's only the record companies and commercial broadcast radio that are suffering. The musicians aren't making any less, or any more, than before.

This does not change the fact that Lily Allen, James Blunt, and their fellow allies of the record industry cartel (ultimately, the RIAA) are entirely the creation of the cartel. Their careers cannot exist without the cartel. If the record industry goes bankrupt, say bye-bye to their careers. They are as much manufactured products of the record industry cartel as the CDs they sell. They, like Metallica and Garth Brooks before them, are corporate tools. It is no coincidence that Metallica have never recovered from their pyrrhic victory over Napster, when they sold their integrity in their Faustian bargain with the RIAA. And it now looks like Lily Allen has destroyed her career with her militant pro-ban stance as a spokeswhore bought and paid for by the cartel. She even took down her blog (no link because the link's now dead) because she got such abuse in the comments for being a hired troll. But it's no use buying or even selling her integrity like someone tried to sell Metallica's; it's worthless.

Why do I say Radiohead and the FAC are taking a moderate stance on the proposed law? Because they agree with Allen and the militants that file sharing is destructive, only not to the big acts like Radiohead and Lily Allen. I beg to differ. I know of many, many musicians and bands who say that they wouldn't be able to get their music out there without file sharing. Some were even made, not ruined, by it. And Boing Boing reports on a Cato Institute study (note: PDF) which shows exactly how destructive file sharing has been to the music industry: not much, if at all. So even the moderates in the British controversy are wrong. We Americans may be taking sides in the wrong controversy, but the Brits picked the wrong controversy to fight over. The proposed law is every bit as evil as the draconian US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But in Britain they're arguing over whether the penalty should be lenient or (as the new law would propose) vindictive; both the moderates and the extremists agree that file sharing is bad and shouldn't exist. Here in America, we're fighting over whether file sharing actually should exist; some of us, bitter opponents of the RIAA and its monopoly over both product and artists, believe strongly that it should, and invoke the First Amendment of the US Constitution in its defense. We shouldn't underestimate the differences between the US and UK.

Know the fights you pick. Especially if they're in another country.

Back to The Space Helmet Show...


  1. Hello Dennis, your post was interesting, and it helped clarify this debate for me.
    I have seen RIP: A Remix Manifesto and I thought it was interesting. However, it left me with some unanswered questions that I would be very intersted in hearing someone with your views answer.

    1) The labels are obviously evil, i've read "appetite for self destruction". However, do you believe artists will be able to have 3-5 album carreers without some sort of profit motive? to put it another way, can there be a "Kid A" without "Creep"?

    2) You say that file sharing has always existed; true. However, now with the advent of downloading, itunes, etc, it is now EASIER to rip songs then to buy them. It's the same process, just one requires a payment screen. Considering no one ever could band people from making mix tapes/cd's, why should we protect people's right to have free music at their fingertips?

    3) You say Lilly Allen is a corporate whore. What about The Beatles? They certainly played the game in the beginning of their career (hell, they started as a bar band and their first album is half covers).

    4) Where and who are the great post-filing sharing bands/artists?

    Thank you so much for answering my questions, this debate facinates. I am a moderate, I think file sharing is not the devil, but the absolute unquestioned belief that its free speech, not to sample, but rather to take a full song by an artist and consume it seems wrong as well.

  2. "If it sounds like theft, it is."

    While this is overall an excellent article, I cannot agree with that point. My number one frustration in finding intelligent discussion of copyright issues is the glib way with which people intermix their moral agendas with the law.

    Legally, file sharing is not and has never been theft.

  3. @moritheil:

    "If it sounds like theft, it is": I meant illegally copying, say, CDs in order to sell them for a profit without the consent of the copyright owners (the artist and label). That's what I mean by piracy. You are absolutely right that file sharing isn't theft or piracy. Nor was home taping back in the day (which we now do with CD-Rs). The only people who believe that's "piracy" or "theft" are the executives and lawyers of the big record companies and their megacorporate owners.

    Just had to clear that one up in case my wording confuses anybody.