Well, the other shoe has dropped. The Recording Industry Association of America has announced that it will sue individuals who are engaging in unauthorized file sharing. We can expect hundreds of lawsuits by the end of the summer. Of course, everyone is commenting on this, usually either with outrage or grudging, fatalistic acceptance. I might as well put in my two cents too. Especially since there are certain aspects of this case that have not been sufficiently discussed…
FIrst of all, lots of people seem to see this as a desperation move on the part of the recording industry. According to this line of thought, the industry cannot stamp out file sharing, so they are pushing to ever more extreme measures, which will backfire and marginalize them still further,
However, it seems to me that the exact contrary of this is the case. The recording industry is winning the file sharing war. They have a lock on the courts and on Congress, and like any army that is on a roll, they are pushing to consolidate their gains. If the industry were in trouble, they would never be able to get away with something like this. But they have already gotten a bunch of college kids to fork over their life savings, and the courts have ruled that they have a right to demand names from service providers. They have calculated, rightly in my opinion, that they have nothing to fear from consumer outrage. Does anyone really think that millions of CD buyers will no longer purchase disks from Eminem or 50 Cent because they are mad about these lawsuits? The recording industry, like any bunch of gangsters, is pushing ahead because they have eliminated all effective opposition.
Second, part of what is so troubling about this news has to do with how it is a part of the ongoing privatization of legal sanctions. Probably the government could never get away with sending a few hundred college students to jail for file sharing. But the record companies do not face any such constraint. Even if the government did prosecute, there are statuatory limits on how much punishment they can ask for. But the record companies do not have this limitation; they can ask for ridiculous amounts of money in damages, far beyond what any private individual (aside from a few billionaires) could ever possibly pay. They are authorized to do so by the DMCA; and they are pretty much guaranteed that their claims will never even be seriously tested in court, because most of the people they accuse will not even be able to afford the fees for a legal defense, let alone the damages being asked for. So, as with the college students sued last month, the victims will be forced to settle out of court, turning over whatever litrtle money they do have to the RIAA. In other word, the recording industry has the perfect setup: a full-blown extortion racket with the law on their side! Privatization of legal disputes leads to the untrammeled power of the rich, without any of the limitations that constrain the government. The fact that more and more issues are being treated this way, in terms of private damages instead of public statuatory violations, means that many of our basic human rights, like the right to a fair trial, the right to the presumption of innocence, and the prohibition of excessive punishment no longer exist in our digitized, hyper-capitalist society.
I have previously argued for massive civil disobedience as a way to put an end to copyright extortionism once and for all. But now this seems to me a bit naive. Such civil disobedience would work against the government, but it will be entirely ineffective against giant corporations and their teams of lawyers. Corporations are not constrained by public opinion in the way that even tyrannical governments are.
Finally, to make my own position clear. I think that, in the age of digital dissemination, copyright, trademark, and patent laws have outlived their usefulness. Their enforcement under current technological conditions is absolutely incompatible with democracy. DIgital copyright, as the RIAA defines it, is both an extortion racket and a form of massive censorship, In the current “free market” climate, private corporations are getting powers to regulate every aspect of our intimate lives more fully than any totalitarian dictator, Stalin or Hitler or Saddam, was ever able to attain.
In such a climate, not only do I think that violating copyright laws through file sharing is not wrong. I think it is our positive moral obligation to violate such laws. Anybody who enjoys listening to music has a moral obligation to disseminate the sources of his or her pleasure as widely as possible, by making digital copies, sharing files, and so on and so forth. The same goes for books, movies, or any other digitizable medium of art, entertainment, or pleasure.
I admit that I purchase CDs and DVDs on occasion. But I am not proud of doing so; I confess that in such cases, I am paying the money simply because it is easier to get the stuff I want that way. But the only ethical thing to do is to share and copy the files, rather than putting more money into the hands of the corporate gangsters.