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The Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

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Interesting look at the morality of file sharing in the NY Times:

    IMAGINE that you sell newspapers on the honor system. You put some papers out on a table, along with a can for the money. It would surprise hardly anyone if, at the end of the day, more papers were taken than were paid for.

    But Dan Ariely, a professor of media and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied people’s online behavior, says that when experimenters who actually tried this mounted a mirror above the newspapers, more people left money when they took a paper. Apparently, many of us can be shamed into honesty.

    That’s the trouble with the Internet. If it’s a place where nobody knows you’re a dog, as a New Yorker cartoon once said, then it’s also a place where nobody knows you’re a crook, either. Even you may not know. Anonymity allows honest people to sustain a higher level of dishonesty without guilt, as is obvious to many people who have tried online dating.

    Nothing captures this phenomenon better than Internet music sharing.

    ….It does not matter if the music business is tasteless, oligopolistic or foolish, as some of its critics contend. Even the greedy and the oafish enjoy the protection of the law.

    How is it that otherwise law-abiding citizens do not seem to mind? One reason, Professor Ariely says, is self-deception: “People tell themselves stories they like to hear to justify what they’re doing, so they can get something for nothing.” That’s why the mirror was so effective in the experiment; it impaired the self-deception of those who would steal a newspaper. Moreover, he says, people’s willingness to pay is strongly tied to their sense of fairness about price. Consumers know that the cost of producing a CD is low, and because the music shared online is incorporeal, why should anyone mind if they don’t pay?

    The reason we should all mind is that Internet music sharing represents a profound assault on the very idea of intellectual property….

The editorialist Daniel Akst then posits that the answer is the end of anonymity on the Internet.

Now, I have stated that ultimately file sharing copyrighted material without permission is NOT a moral act. But I also say there ARE a lot of mitigating factors that can push file sharing ALMOST up to the line of morality, perhaps the most compelling of which is the legitimate unavailability of vast stretches of the musical landscape on a per-sng basis. With the welter of new services coming online for Windows this fall – including the new Napster, which claims it will have over 500K songs available, about double what other services like Apple’s iTunes have thus far, either by a per-song or subscription basis, and featuring both major and indie labels – the morality of free decreases.

But the newspaper analogy points to the logical result of making music available legitimately: once you put your coins into the newspaper vending box on the corner, you can take as many papers as you want and run around dispensing them willy-nilly as you see fit.

There seems to be little problem with this, as the system has been used for many years. The key for the publishers is collecting the payment to get the box open in the first place. This would seem to be analagous with some kind of licensing system: get the first payment, then don’t worry about it.

Finally, Akst’s answer of taking away online anonymity is exactly reversing cause and effect, cart and horse, problem and remedy. The rise of open Wi-Fi is making it impossible to trace individual users – the move is inexorably toward GREATER privacy online rather than lesser, and this is a greater public good than fanatically defending intellectual property rights anyway. Creators should be paid, the Internet should remain open, some kind of flat fee, all you can eat system fulfills both needs. In the words of Jim Griffin:

    Flat fees and feels free go hand-in-hand, creating a world of compensation and collaboration. We hold much more in our open hands than we ever could in the closed-fist of so-called intellectual property. Finding the balance is the key and pricing should be our focus.

It is fine to tell people what they shouldn’t do, but even when you are right, if you don’t give them a reasonable, attractive alternative, you’re just shouting into the wind.

For another view, see here.

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