“Look, piracy is outright theft. People are out there blatantly stealing from Americans—stealing their ideas and robbing us of America’s creative energies. There’s no reason why we should treat intellectual property any different than tangible property.” – Joe Biden
Piracy of music and movies is rampant. Technology has made it easier than ever for a person to clone and disseminate materials to which they do not own the rights. This is not in dispute. But attitudes about both sharing and receiving this intellectual property vary drastically.
Older generations tend to accept the notion that getting music or movies for free is stealing. When you’ve spent years paying a premium for such things, suddenly getting it for free just doesn’t feel…well, legal. Of course, some of those people are more than willing to ignore that nagging feeling, especially once they get a taste of the good stuff (free music, immediately). And then, of course, there’s a younger generation for whom this pang of guilt simply doesn’t exist. It’s not whether they view it as stealing, it’s that they view the marketplace from a completely different perspective. For a generation raised on freely available media, the resulting cognitive development has transformed the question of whether receiving such media is right or wrong into a simple question of what is just. And when you determine your own standards of justice, all you need to do is self-justify your actions. You might not pay for the band’s album, but you’ll go to the show and buy a t-shirt. It all evens out, doesn’t it?
This is not to say they are wrong. They are simply adapting to a world in which there are no obviously “correct” sets of standards. Of course stealing, as a concept, isn’t right. But it’s just not valid to equate downloading a music file to smashing in a window at Tiffany’s and taking what you can grab, as Vice President Joe Biden tried to do recently in an interview with Variety. Biden’s recently ramped-up rhetoric leaves no room for the kind of compromise required to find a solution to the problem of media piracy. And, most crucially, it makes no distinction between counterfeiting goods and file-sharing.
Wouldn't it be ironic if we got sued for using this chart?
Joe Biden comes off as a pretty amiable guy. While former rival Sarah Palin went to great lengths to sell herself as the gal next door, she was unfortunately up against the genuine article. In the average Joe contest, even Joe the Plumber couldn’t out-genial Joe the Senator. Now Biden has become the public face of the anti-piracy movement in Washington. And he’s perfect for the job. His plain-spoken demeanor makes his easy-to-grasp argument sound natural and compelling: getting something without paying for it is stealing. It can’t hurt that he undoubtedly buys this argument wholesale. And it is easy to imagine it being sold to him by his longtime friends in Hollywood, including that newly-installed bridge from DC to LA, former Senator/shifty character Chris Dodd—the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Biden’s new crusade has resulted in a “summit” on the matter of piracy, to which only one side appears to have been invited—players in the major media companies. There is no one to make the argument that these players are on a completely different field than their would-be customers. That the VP and the media companies are still clinging to an outdated model is not a new complaint, even to them. In Variety, Biden counters:
“The fact is, media companies have already taken significant steps to adapt their business models to keep up with changes in how we watch movies and listen to music. Content is being offered to consumers in a variety of different ways that make it easy and cost-effective for people to access legal material. Anyone who does not understand this should simply talk with one of my grandkids.”
Obviously the media companies are aware they have a huge problem and have made attempts to keep up with the changing landscape. Unfortunately, they are always several paces behind both the consumer demand and the technology. And while they might have a “new media” department or brain-trust to make their shareholders feel better, the bulk of their energies and funds are spent on defending their property. The “significant steps” they’ve taken have only been because their hands have been forced. The ubiquity of Apple and iTunes (and others that have followed) has demanded that they play along to an extent, or risk losing the last major outlet they have for legal music sales. It’s worth noting that no representatives from Apple or other cutting-edge media companies were included in Biden’s summit.
Had the conglomerates recognized the futility of their position earlier and made compromises that would, in the long-term, strengthen that position, they would still be the present and future powerhouses in entertainment. Instead, they raged and struggled. Taught by decades of experience that they could bully their way through any challenge to their modes of operation, they realized too late that this fight was not simply them against a few Napsters. It was instead them against the free market and the inevitable advancement of technology, in addition to a new generation who have never known anything but this state of flux.
Biden at least has the insight that this is the challenge. In his interview, he says, “Kids are taught that it is not right to steal a lollipop from the corner store. They also need to understand that it is equally wrong to knowingly steal a movie or a song from the Internet.” And he’s not totally incorrect, either. In fact, it’s admirable that the Vice President is arguing for artists’ rights. But his approach leaves no room for a new solution. Any summit on the matter has to include all perspectives. That’s what a summit is. The approach that the other side needs to be “taught” a lesson is wildly misguided. As a result, Biden and his media friends will lose this battle, sooner or later. Perhaps he can take some comfort in his GRAMMY.