I wonder how many people supporting the Digital Economy Bill have ever borrowed a book from one of their friends? For that matter, have any of them ever bought a second-hand book? How many of them have sat in a doctor’s waiting room and read magazines in the rack to pass the time?
It’s generally accepted that sharing printed material is entirely normal, despite the fact that every shared copy is, in theory, a lost sale. Even more so, in many cases, given that, unlike with music, people don’t normally read books and magazines over and over again – the book that I read while at my parents’ house last week really is a lost sale, because, even though I enjoyed reading it, I’m not ever going to buy it now.
The argument that sequential sharing of this nature is somehow different to the simultaneous sharing that takes place when a music file is copied is disingenuous. Ultimately what’s happened in both cases is that two or more people have the benefit of something that just one of them has paid for. And there are only two options here: Either that is fundamentally wrong or it isn’t. And I think nearly everyone would agree that, in fact, it isn’t fundamentally wrong.
If it’s not wrong in principle on a small scale, then still it isn’t wrong in principle on a large scale. It only becomes wrong in practice if you add in another principle: that the creator has an absolute right to an income independent of whether or not people are willing to purchase his or her material. In some socialist utopia, that might be the case (to each according to his needs, etc), but it surely doesn’t apply in anything resembling a free market economy.
Of course, it may be true that if too few of us are willing to pay for music, then creators will become few and far between and we’ll end up with less music to share. And I’d agree that that’s an undesirable prospect. But who suffers most in such a scenario? We, the consumers, do. If making music is no longer profitable, the music makers can find another job. But if the music makers stop making music, the consumers can’t get it anywhere else. If that’s the case, though, why legislate to prevent it happening? If the consumers kill their own golden goose, that’s their problem. Lack of popular music or the latest movies never hurt anyone; it’s not like health care or food or shelter or anything else that really matters. But if anyone is worried about a possible shortage of new music, then the remedy is in their own hands: they can pay creators to create it.
Technological change has always threatened jobs. The introduction of the printing press put the scribes out of work. The railways made stage coaches redundant. Motorised vehicles in turn ended the golden age of the railways. You can’t legislate against the forward march of technology, and you can’t legislate against humanity. We are inherently social animals, and sharing is fundamental to our nature. If technology now makes sharing much easier, then that is a good thing. It’s still a good thing even if it causes short-term loss to those who previously built a business model on it being difficult. In the long run, the benefits to society as a whole outweigh the loss to those who are made redundant by progress.
Sharing isn’t stealing. It never has been, and it never will be. But denying people the right to share is an assault on humanity itself.