NBC Universal recently hired a company called Envisional to study counterfeiting activity over the Internet. The results of this study – despite the fact that it is industry funded – are literally astonishing: 24% of all global Internet traffic involves digital theft!  Stated another way, one in every four people surfing the Internet are stealing intellectual property, i.e., illegally downloading either copyrighted or trademarked materials.  According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 95% of the music downloaded from the Internet is downloaded illegally!  Imagine how our society would react if one out of every four people in retail malls were carrying out stolen merchandise on a daily basis, or if 95% of the product leaving the mall was stolen.  It would be chaos.

Ring of FrodoNow consider whether these people who so quickly download a song or a movie on the Internet without paying for it would also walk up to an artist selling their painting in the park and steal one of their painting.  I firmly believe the answer to that question is a resounding no!  But why? What is different about the world wide web, i.e. cyberspace, that gives these consumers the feeling that they are entitled to download music and movies through mechanisms like BitTorrent without compensating those who created such product?  What are these people thinking?

I think the answer can be found in the writings of Plato.  In the second book of his Republic, Plato’s student, Glaucon, poses the illustration of the “Ring of Gyges.”  In the story, Gyges is a shepherd who finds a magical ring in a chasm created by a lightning storm.  The ring gives him a cloak of invisibility.  Using his newfound power, Gyges seduces the Queen of Lydia, murders the King, and takes the throne, gaining power, wealth and fame.  In the Republic, Glaucon argues that given a similar opportunity, any person, whether or not they were previously just or unjust, would use the power to commit as many crimes as necessary to get what they want [Book II, 359d].    Glaucon was responding to Socrates’ refutation of arguments put forth by Thrasymachus in Book I of the Repbulic, i.e., that “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger”  [Book I, 338c].

I believe Glaucon’s experiment in thought informs us as to why someone who would not normally steal a tangible object in the physical world is nonetheless more than willing to download music or movies, intangible objects, on the Internet for free: because the fear of being punished or getting caught is eliminated in the evanescent world of Cyberspace.  The Internet, like Gyge’s ring, confers upon its users a seeming cloak of indivisibility as it were.  As one astute commentator surmised in response to an interview with Alice in Chain’s lead singer, Sean Kinney, “The real reason people steal music is that they CAN and very easily.”  That this is a truth is evident from the plethora of “how to” guides on the Internet, teaching people “How not to get caught.” There you have it in a nutshell.   All of the commentary about how the record industry has been thieves and how the RIAA unjustly goes after the defenseless people, these are mere justifications for actions people otherwise know in their hearts are wrong.

It’s important to read Plato’s response to his student to understand fully, as Plato did not agree with Glaucon.  Plato’s argument in the remaining portion of the Republic is that the just man would not be tempted by this cloak of invisibility to commit crimes.  Rather, the just man understands that crime itself makes a person unhappy and that he is better off to remain just.   I frequently discuss this issue with my college students at Belmont University when teaching a course on Copyright Law.  One of my students made the following observation, which confirms Plato’s conclusion.  She said:

I do not follow the rules because I am scared of the RIAA busting me for illegal downloading. I follow the rules because I have respect for the people who wrote and recorded the songs, and even more, because I want to work in the music industry.

Another relevant opinion is offered in the excellent blog article found on arbiteronline entitled Illegal downloading: The real cost of ‘free’ music.” In that article, a student at Boise state, Ammon Roberts, is quoted as saying:

“I don’t do it because I don’t feel it’s right.  If I were making the music, I’d be upset if people were downloading it for free.”

For these two students, following the rules is not about whether or not they’ll be caught, it’s about doing the right thing.  It’s about honoring, i.e. compensating, the people who created the music. 03-20-invisible_full_600 This illustrates Plato’s point precisely:  a just person understands that even with a cloak of invisibility, doing the right thing makes a person happy or, in the words of Roberts, makes the person “feel right.”

The Internet is also very much the Land of Oz.  In addition to this cloak of invisibility endowed on us by the Internet, it also deceives us with illusions of anonymity – not so much that the user is anonymous, as that’s merely another form of invisibility – but in the sense that it’s difficult to know who’s behind the curtain.   As Trent Reznor said in an interview, “there is a perception that you don’t pay for music when your hear it . . . on MySpace.”  Because of its sheer vastness and its mysteriousness, Cyberspace gives people false perceptions that their actions on the Internet do not affect real people.   This, in turn, creates an illusion that “resistance is futile.”  Everyone is doing it, so I can too.  In other words, Cyberspace alters our reality in that it makes the real people behind the music an amorphous, anonymous entity.  The result is that it’s much easier to steal from an amorphous, anonymous entity – the man behind the curtain – than it is from a struggling songwriter, particularly when all your friends are doing it.

I truly believe that most of the people who are illegally downloading music from the Internet have no idea who they are affecting or how widespread the effect is.  Most of these people would not even think about walking up on stage after a singer/songwriter in a nightclub takes a break and stealing his guitar, but that very same person doesn’t think twice of taking that same singer/songwriter’s song from the Internet.  They wouldn’t steal the filmmaker’s camera, but downloading the movie doesn’t phase their consciousness.  In fact, many who contribute to the  dialog would argue that these two thefts are not analogous.  But one analysis conducted by the Institute for Policy Innovation states otherwise.  The report indicated that music piracy causes $12.5 billion of economic losses every year.  It further concluded that 71,060 U.S. jobs are lost, with a total loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings.  Such reports abound throughout the industry, yet many of the people guilty of illegal download continue to view these reports as industry-driven and, therefore, skewed.  Take this comment by blogger Michael Arrington as an example:

Eventually the reality of the Internet will force the laws to change, too. One way or another the music labels will eventually surrender, and recorded music will be free.  Until it is, I refuse to feel guilty for downloading and sharing music. Every time I listen to a song, or share it with a friend, I’m doing the labels a favor. One that eventually I should be paid for. Until that day comes, don’t even think about trying to tell me that I’m doing something ethically wrong when it’s considered quite legal, with the labels’ blessing, in China.

resistanceBut what this illusion of anonymity, and such misguided opinions, miss is the fact that very real people – not amorphous masses – are being affected.  And the effect is devastating.  I have clients who are songwriters who are no longer creating art because they are forced to take odd jobs to support their families.  The performance royalties they used to receive from ASCAP, BMI or SESAC are down by half or more from a few years ago.  Their mechanical royalty checks are virtually non-existent.  They simply cannot afford to create simply for the sake of creation.  And now, working sometimes two jobs, they don’t have the time to create.  What will become of the art of songwriting if Mr. Arrington has his way and all recorded music is free?  I believe we will not have the quality of music in this country that we have enjoyed throughout the last millennium.  In this instance, I do not believe that resistance is futile.

Now, getting back to Plato and the Ring of Gyges, in answer to Glaucon, Plato would say that the root of all trouble is unlimited desire.   How true is that in this world of Cyberspace, in this world of rampant illegal downloading.  The wheels really fell off the wagon when the RIAA sued Diamond Multimedia, bringing the MP3 into society’s field of view.  Then, Napster exploded and almost everyone found that almost every song they ever loved was available for free.  It’s as if they were Harrison Ford and discovered the treasure room in an unknown, ancient tomb: everything your heart desires is within your grasp.  It’s yours for the taking.  With its cloak of invisibility and its illusion of anonymity, what the Internet has done, in short, is to return the power – i.e., the control – back to the people.  Everyone is now a creater, a publisher, and distributor.  No one needs the conglomerates anymore – the people have the power.  But, as Lord Acton said, beware:  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  With power, therefore, comes responsibility.   Unfortunately for the music industry, the power is currently being abused and will, ultimately, mean the end of the recording industry as it existed through the 20th century unless the creators regain that power.

So what does this mean for those of us who have chosen to make our living in the world of creation?  Does it mean the end of our industry?  Does it mean an end to copyright law as it exists?  If we examine the origins of copyright – i.e., the protection of an original idea expressed in a tangible format – as passed down to us from our forefathers, we find a concept on which we can continue to build.  In the now famous Radiohead experiment in which Reznor and crew allowed consumers to pay what and only if they wanted to, 18% of the consumers chose to do so!  That to me, is an encouraging statistic, and one that confirms a believe in the viability of creating art.  At least one in five people, even with the cloak of anonymity provided by the Ring of Gyges of this era, i.e., Cyberspace, chose to pay the creators for their creation.  Take that Glaucon!  Take that Arrington!  What does that say for our society?  It says that there are people who still chose to do the right thing, even when the tide of conformity rises above their heads.

The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter what laws are passed by society, there will always be a certain percentage of people who will chose to steal, take and plunder, whether it be because they are more powerful or because they are cloaked with invisibility or shielded by anonymity.  But – and here is the important thing – there will also always be a segment of society that recognizes the idea that Thomas Hobbes first advanced hundreds of years ago, i.e., the idea of “giving to every man his own.”    If a man bakes a loaf of bread, is it not his right to trade that to the artist for whose painting he wishes to barter?  This idea was later incorporated by our Forefathers into Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the authority “[to] promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive rights to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  Without this Constitutional right, a creator has no hope of protecting his or her property against plunder.  And as long as a segment of society believes this proposition to be beneficial to society as a whole, it will hopefully continue to motivate creators to create, and so profit from their creations, despite the efforts of those who choose to destroy it under a cloak of invisibility and unjustly take for themselves the kingdom of Lydia.

Quotations from Republic are taken from the W.H.D. Rouse translation, Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, 1956, a quoted in this fine article on the topic.

 


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