The New York Times: Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?

Picture from NYTimes: Shakespeare/Jennifer Daniel

ARCHAEOLOGISTS finished a remarkable dig last summer in East London. Among their finds were seven earthenware knobs, physical evidence of a near perfect 16th-century experiment into the link between commerce and culture.

Thus begins a very interesting article at the New York Times I read today.

Almost everybody I care about is involved to some extent in the production of what legal types call “intellectual property”. This is the stuff that people on the internet regard as somehow “not real” – music, video games, art, computer programming, writing … any bright idea that can be transferred via bits of data to entertain the masses. Funnily enough, that notion of intangibility evaporates when people are asked to part with their credit card information.

People put forward all sorts of arguments as to why people are so keen on leaking stuff on the internet. A blogger friend claimed that he was promoting the acts he writes about, so it’s OK to use filesharing sites. The what-if-everybody-did-that argument is heightened when you consider how many thousands of blogs there are on the internet – there’s almost nobody left to buy the music!

One theory was that people just thought they were being helpful by giving away other people’s music for free. Another theory was that it was a sort of fame-by-reflection: the fan wanted to be the first one to leak the album, and had put up a blog page with links to the downloads, with his own name in big letters and the band’s name in small letters –


that other people have made.

One friend – let’s call him ‘Bob‘ – suggested that it’s because people are lazy – that going to a legitimate download site is just too much effort so they download illegally out of habit.

Another friend, ‘Dave‘, even wondered if there was some sort of anarchic view that made filesharers deem themselves “liberators” of music from the oppressive tyranny of those evil record companies. I know people who work for record companies. It’s usually one or two blokes in their bedroom – not terribly tyrannical. They tend to go bust a lot because there’s no money in it. Even the big ones don’t make very much money, which is why they pay their staff jack-all when they’re not letting all their acts go and making everybody redundant.

Whatever motives the filesharers and users of filesharing sites use to convince themselves they’re the good guys, I can’t help making the link between “getting the stuff for free on the internet”, and my use of legitimate download sites and retail stores that has resulted in my husband and I spending about £300 on Bob‘s products and £200 on Dave‘s. Call me old-fashioned, but given that I really, really like the artistic output that my very talented friends produce, I’m happy to support them in their jobs. They make me happy; I get to help them keep on making me happy.

I’m not going to pretend to be a saint: when I couldn’t get hold of three out-of-print Pig records, after spending over $100 on shipping over a bunch of CDs from the States, a friend took pity on me and offered to copy his CDs for me, thus completing my collection. I’ve even sent word to Raymond that “I owe him £20”, which I’m willing to part with, but I haven’t seen the bugger in over 10 years. The difference is that for me to get my copy, my friend had to buy his copy. That’s one copy between two people – the same ratio that used to be the norm when home taping was rife when I was young. Your friend would buy an album; you’d tape it off them, and maybe buy it later. They’d tape one of yours. Even if you never bought the illegitimate album, that was still a one-in-two ratio for sales to copies. When you use a torrent, not only are you “seeding” the album to allow more people to copy it, but the ratio is more like 1,000 to one or even 10,000 to one. It’s the sheer scale that’s destructive.

I know my rantings fall on deaf ears, but it all comes back to my oft-voiced belief that if I don’t speak out against things I think are wrong then I’m complicit in my silence. Other people are one-subject bores about different issues; this is mine and it’s a very un-argued corner. I’m personally sick to the back teeth of magazines pandering to their dwindling readership by coming out on the side of the filesharers – but they don’t like it so much when people upload scans of their magazines.

Making anything worthwhile is usually fairly expensive. I have my music-purchasing habit and the people around me have their music-making habits. They have to pay for hardware, software, all sorts of costs here and there – even making a record in your bedroom can cost thousands. Launching a new pop act, I read today, costs $1 million. An A&R seminar I went to in 1999 featured a contributor who said that if a record label is only 99% certain they can make money from an act, they don’t sign them because it’s just too expensive and risky. Now in the context where people don’t want to buy music at all, it’s not surprising that the acts that do get signed are ever more “safe” and bland – guaranteed sellers without much innovation. Everyone’s too afraid to take risks, and that is because the ultimate investor in new talent is not the label, but the public.

Top video games have movie budgets: tens of millions. If we haven’t seen the first hundred-million-dollar game yet, we soon will. Even so, the people working on those games don’t tend to earn very much – all that money goes on the enormous cost of bringing it to life.

It’s not just the raw cost of making it, it’s all the time and effort that goes into it – and that’s where the real hurt comes into it when someone takes your hard work and doesn’t even acknowledge that much.

My personal theory is that people fileshare just because they can. Perhaps there was truth in this when a couple ran up an enormous bill in a restaurant and then fled without paying. It’s a crime that’s becoming increasingly prevailant because now we’ve stopped valuing music, games and books, we’ve stopped valuing everything. If we don’t have to pay for music, why should we pay for anything at all?

From the news report on the restaurant:

As for the suggestion that “Lupin” may have been chosen as some kind of joke, Popaj said: “It makes me very angry. What upsets me most is that they have this mentality that this [amount] is nothing for this level of restaurant.

“They are forgetting that they are really attacking the waiters, who don’t have an enormous income.”

Whatever your views on piracy, have a look at the NY Times article. It’s very interesting and thought-provoking, and puts things a lot more eloquently than I ever could.


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