File sharing is often characterised as stealing, but this analogy is flawed. When a thief steals something, someone is deprived of it. When a pirate “steals” a file, they make it more available for greater numbers of people, not unavailable to the copyright holder. It would be fairer to compare file sharing to forgery, for this is the crime it most represents.
With this in mind, consider what would happen if a new device were available in your home that could photocopy any object perfectly (somewhat like the replicator in Star Trek). Clearly, this piece of equipment would thoroughly undermine the institution of cash: coins and paper money, now able to be forged by anyone, would immediately cease to be viable. A new approach to money would be required.
So it is with file sharing. The pirates are certainly complicit in crime, but focussing on this aspect of the situation is naïve. The problem is not that pirates duplicate files illegally, but that the business model of media as packaged goods is now irreparably compromised: like replicated money, a new approach is required. (I gestured at this same point previously, in comparing the file sharing situation to the effect of the advent of the telegraph on the Pony Express).
Perhaps the most viable new option is to switch from a goods model to a services model – media companies would gain revenue for providing media on demand in return for a subscription fee. (An alternative, per download fees, risks heavy invasion of privacy issues). Heavy-handed defences such as DRM are not strictly required for the service model to work, and may indeed be counter-productive to making money when one considers how much media revenue comes from cross licensing (e.g. using songs in advertisements or movie soundtracks; merchandising from TV and movies etc.). Getting a song in circulation adds value to a media corporation's portfolio of assets; the loss in fees implied in personal sharing may be negligible by comparison.
The greatest irony about this situation is that the pirates are already paying for their media on a subscription model. No-one gets internet service for free. Seen from this perspective, the problem is not one of crime prevention, but of broken revenue streams: internet service providers are not passing money onto media providers for the services they are brokering (for pirates). This simple fix could solve the problem in a stroke, but it will not be easy for giant multinational media corporations (who are on the defensive because they are haemorrhaging money) to negotiate fairly with the rather smaller ISPs. But as long as they don't, their leaky revenue model is to a significant degree their own responsibility.
The opening image is Piracy by Mike Cassel, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.