May 2, 2014

Confessions of a Canadian Torrent-User by Isaac Snow

"The Pirate Bay Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing."

In Canada we have little to fear about torrenting. In years of using peer-to-peer networks, I have had no issues with any legal matters, and I have yet to hear any personal accounts of personal issues concerning the legality of sharing copyrighted material. This essay seeks to understand the moral issues concerning digital piracy.

The internet is a glorious place for sharing knowledge and accessing knowledge. Websites like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and even the better pages of Wikipedia allow people access to a wide range of topics that is only matched in good libraries. But purchasing a computer and getting an internet connection, or even simply having a shared computer, can be much more economically reasonable than building a library for people to go to. The City of Kelowna has three different libraries, including a huge one downtown. It even offers intra-library loans, where I can request to borrow a book from another library and the library will get it shipped to my location. I once ordered a book from Ontario... they shipped a book to me from over 3500 km away. Torrenting is like living right beside amazing library, like having a friend with an enormous record collection, like attending a school with advanced computer software.

Torrenting is a specific method of sharing and duplicating media through the internet. Instead of shipping a book from Ontario I could go onto one of numerous websites and torrent an electronic version of the book. If the book is unrestricted, without copyrights, I could often go to a hosting site such a Project Gutenberg and receive a direct download. Torrenting is an alternative method from direct download in that it uses peers from around the world to download from and is the method often used to share copyrighted material that sites like Project Gutenberg would not host. A torrent tracker uses a specific code to receive information concerning a media file. It then proceeds to download the file from information hosted and sent from peers (other people around the world that have the torrent file and the media file). Essentially, the computer is creating a duplicate file of a file numerous people from around the world currently have.

Pete Townshend of The Who fame, in a talk on torrenting, related pirating his music to going onto his property and stealing his daughters bicycle. This is irrational and a fallacy. Torrenting is not stealing because to steal is to take. In this case nothing is being lost; as a download I have not stolen his daughters bike, I have been given the blueprints and my computer recreated the bicycle. A torrent, in effect, creates a second bicycle. His daughter gets to keep hers, and now I can give my daughter one too. There is no theft as there is no object of thievery. Torrenting Townshend's rock music is illegal because it breaks his copyright on the music. A copyright is the the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Because I have not received permission from Townshend I am illegally duplicating his music, but not stealing.

This conflation of stealing and duplicating is perpetuated by the confusion that by torrenting you are 'stealing' by (possibly) taking away the potential that you would have purchased the media. I would have bought The Who's album but why bother? I just grabbed a digital copy for free! I put 'possibly' in brackets in the first statement because I could always go out and purchase the album after I've downloaded it. In fact, its quite possible that I would have never heard the album, or given it a chance until I downloaded it; this has a greater potential with lesser-known bands - which is probably why the main critics of torrenting are big name bands, people who take it for granted that they won the career lottery when they were able to create music for a living.

Duplicating copyrighted media has always existed. However the computer age has complicated things. Computer media, in relation to traditional forms of media such as vinyl, fall under a different category of good due to its form. In standard economic terms, digital files are public goods being non-excludable (anyone can get it) and non-rivalrous (there is an unlimited quantity). Traditionally these media types have been private goods, excludable and rivalrous. Anti-torrentors, if they do not use the term, refer to the free-rider market failure when they claim that media will cease to be produced if torrenting becomes the norm.

An obvious criticism of torrent sites is that the statement above, "Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world" is thoroughly misleading as Pirate Bay and the majority of torrent sites have a lack of educational material relative to the mass amounts of entertainment media on display. This however is no fault of the system but rather displays the interests of the users. If torrenting becomes a more popular thing we should expect to see an increase in educational material.

One of my favourite comic strip sites The Dog House Diaries operates under a "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License". Which means, as the website states, "you may share, copy, reprint, or publish [the] comics as long as you provide the source." I look forward to more creators using this method. Other creators operate under advertisements and donations for their income (The Partially Examined Life podcast, Red Letter Media, etc.) New funding techniques such as those employed by Kickstarter enable creators to get the funding they need to create these projects. Often times, in the case of computer media creations, the funders simply get first dibs on the media and credit as producers.

I look forward to the day where musicians and producers aren't paid millions for creating pop songs. True musicians will pursue their love without the promise of a well-paying career. And with modern recording technology creating a high quality album is possible on a budget. I look forward to the day when software is designed openly and programmers build upon each others work. The future is friendly, and one where people who work in entertainment and computer coding do so for the love of the craft and survive on charitable contributions and/or a second job.

Update June 12:

Tesla Motors have removed their ownership of all their patents so anyone can use them.

Taken from:

"When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors"

This is the same attitude that I have long held towards all intellectual protection. The world would be better off without it. Creators will still create. Innovates will still innovate. And all will be more effective with the ability to access, to use, and to build on past creations.

Update June 21:

Record labels are now claiming that legally purchases MP3's are too long-lasting and convenient to allow consumers to resell them. Link. So now the record companies don't even want us to have a product at all. When a consumer purchases a digital music file they are in reality simply purchasing the right to listen to the song. The consumer owns nothing. It would follow then that a 'pirate' is also 'stealing' nothing.

Isaac Snow
Busy working at his day job (and totally not duplicating copyrighted material) in Vernon, BC
March 2014

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