I've been discussing digital piracy here for the last few weeks--in this post I argued that pirating digital content is immoral because if everyone did it, it would blight our creative ecosystem. In this post, I went further, arguing that the very structure of the internet encourages immoral behavior, and that we need to redesign the internet to better serve the humans who use it. I also argued that digital piracy is a form of counterfeiting, not theft, and that "counterfeiters" is a better term than "pirates."
So the question might naturally arise--am I being a Chicken Little? I imagine that if the counterfeiters get the upper hand, we might wind up with a digital dystopia in which no content creators can get paid for their efforts and all content becomes amateur. Instead of Hollywood movies that cost tens or even hundreds of millions to produce, we'll have . . . YouTube. Novels will still be written, but many of our greatest novelists--those who make a living from their work--would write less or not at all due to the necessity of taking on other work to put food on the table. Could that really happen?
For an answer, I turn to a fascinating discussion I've been having with Tanvir Hossain on Goodreads. Hossain is a Bangladeshi, and graciously took some time to comment on one of my posts. You can read the whole discussion here.
Hossain begins his comment: "You are right. Piracy isn't right. But still I pirate ebooks. So why I do it? The
main reason is - there is almost no chance in getting caught. If I try
to steal a book form a book store, there is 99% chances that I will get
caught. But If I download a book from a pirate site there is almost no
chance that I will get caught. But this is illegal and immoral."
In Bangladesh, counterfeiting digital work is so widespread that it has become a social norm. Hossain again: "My dad works on a Government office and the operating system of the
computers of his office is pirated windows 7. So if government is using
pirated software, what can you say about this country?"
Counterfeiting has decimated the creative community in Bangladesh. Take the film industry, for example: "Yeah, piracy is destroying the country. It had destroyed the movie
industry and disabled the music industry. It all started in 1990's. When
the VCR hits the stores of Bangladesh, piracy of Video Cassette begins [...] when the
bootlegged copy of Bollywood movies came to Bangladesh they were instant
hit. People started watch movies in VCRs not in cinema halls. As a
result attendance to cinema halls dropped. So the movie industry get
less money and with less money they made low budget and lower quality
films than before. Now if you ask a Bangladeshi what was last bangla
movie he watched I don't think he will able to tell you."
Could this sort of digital dystopia spread to the rest of the world? Of course. All it requires is that those who counterfeit creative work believe they can do so without getting caught. If the social norm becomes that content is free, then most kinds of professional creative endeavor must end. And that world would impoverish both content creators and consumers.
What can you do? Don't frequent counterfeiting sites. Don't link to them. Report counterfeiting sites to authors and/or their publishers. Let your friends who download counterfeit content know that it's not okay to do so. An ultimate solution requires redesigning the internet and probably our copyright laws, but in the meantime we can all help to maintain the social norm that authors and other content creators deserve to be compensated for their work.