Tuesday, April 18, 2006

There for the Taking?

History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age. ~Will and Ariel Durant, Lessons of History

When did so many people decide it was okay to steal?

Music downloads, pirated films and software: It seems that the Internet has become nothing more than a fruit stand where kids swipe all the fruit when the owner and the cop aren't looking. I suspect that the apparent increase in shoplifting is an offshoot of this “okay to pilfer” mentality. But how did we get into such an unethical frame of mind? And what has it gained us?

Theft has been with us since there was stuff to steal. But normally when we talked of theft, we were talking of taking money or various other necessary or valuable items. “Stealing” music and movies simply didn't happen. Oh, someone with a reel-to-reel recorder might make a copy of some vinyl albums, and they might even pass it around to a few fellow audiophiles, but that was about it. And movies? Where were you going to get the equipment to show a print, assuming you could actually steal the film stock? Nope, those were the good old days that the RIAA and MPAA yearn for. Things were about to change.

It happened first in music. The advent of Dolby stereo cassette recorders suddenly made it easy to make a respectable copy of an album, which you could now carry around and play on a portable recorder. You could even give it to a friend and make yourself another copy. Of course, the audio was nowhere as good as the original vinyl, and cassette players had a nasty habit of eating tapes. So most folks, even after getting an illicit copy of a recording, bought the original if they really liked the music. In fact, while the recording industry was already starting to whine about the pirated tunes running amok, people were actually buying vinyl AND tapes, because the pre-recorded tapes had much better sound quality. By buying both, they had the audiophile sound of vinyl and the portability of tape.

So the record companies just continued to make money.

When VCRs appeared, the movie industry went berserk. Yet, they ended up with more profits from the sale of videos than they were making from the original movies themselves. Oh, and they managed to wheedle a royalty on every blank tape sold.

Ironically, there wasn't much that the RIAA and MPAA could do, because the RIAA had panicked back in the old reel-to-reel days and started suing people. The Supreme Court decided that the “fair use” provisions of copyright law allowed a person to make a copy of a film or an album and even give a copy to a friend. The only proviso was that the person making the copy could not benefit financially from it. So, as long as copying was small-scale, the AA's couldn't do anything about it.

While these guys were muttering to themselves, the software industry came along. In the beginning, when a computer cost $5000, paying $300 for Lotus 123 didn't seem like such a big deal. When they dropped to $2500 and Lotus still cost 300 bucks (or more), people began to get a little disgusted. Most software and games just cost too much and didn't seem to be going down in price. Then licenses started getting more restrictive, and the price of a PC got to be lower than some software, so users started finding other “sources” for their software.

Microsoft made hay on this by releasing Office as a $99 upgrade if you had any kind of word processor, spreadsheet, or database software. People jumped all over the offer, and this one piece of Bill Gates genius did more to move Microsoft into desktop domination than anything else. Companies could get legal on their licenses, and users were allowed to use the software at home as well (yes, really; MS made it legal for a user to install the same software at home that they had on their work computer). By the time the competition got wise, the horse was out of the barn. Users didn't want to switch back to some cobbled together suite of WordPerect and Quattro, or Lotus and AmiPro even at $99 (or even lower) “upgrade” offers.

When the dust settled, the other guys were gone, and Uncle Bill had goosed the price of Office up to where it's more expensive than the PC it sits on.

So software goes up, recordings get ever more expensive, and while VCR and DVD movies dropped in price, the price of a movie ticket just followed the software companies' example. And then came the Internet with newsgroups that had pirated music, films, and software. But average users didn't even know about the Usenet and at 28.8 K, downloading Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida took hours. So the RIAA and MPAA grumbled but didn't do much. Then came broadband access (at home or at work) and worse, then came Peer to Peer (P2P) file sharing. Oh, and meanwhile, Asian countries were bootlegging software as fast as their disc burners will churn them out.

Now, I've always had trouble having a lot of sympathy for the RIAA, MPAA, and the SPA (the software cops) because a) they kept making money hand over fist despite all their complaining, and b) they kept increasing the prices of their products out of proportion with what it cost to make them (in the case of movies, I'm talking about the tapes and DVD's, not the original product). But, when the P2P guys like Napster tried to pretend they didn't know what sorts of files people were sharing, and when users started making copies of entire albums available for literally millions of people to download, I felt they crossed the line.

Basically, they were doing what the AA's were doing, which was screwing the artists. At least, the AA's paid the artist something, pittance, in many cases, as it was. But the “file sharers” were giving nothing to anyone. And they were providing a product that would never wear out, unlike vinyl or tape. As long as you had a backup, you had an original quality recording of a film or album. This isn't fair to the people who create the works.

But the ultimate reason that the thieves tick me off is that if they hadn't started allowing everyone on the planet to access their copies, we wouldn't have gotten the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Thanks to that piece of crud, the AA's are suing grannies whose grandkids downloaded a couple of songs. Thanks to the thieves, we have Digital Rights Management methods coming that will make it impossible to even play a CD or DVD on your computer. Thanks to these so-called Robin Hoods, copyright intervals are being extended to the point that nothing will ever become public domain. Thanks to these numskulls, the DMCA is even being used to attack Open Source software (unsuccessfully so far).

Crime doesn't pay, but it sure does cost.

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