Žižek on Fiction
What is Endured Always Enhances Enjoyment

The Black Library: File Sharing Thought Experiments

Filesharing Is file sharing unethical always, sometimes or never? This question is not as simple as advocates from either side of the debate would like to believe.

I call the massively distributed collection of media that is being exchanged via file sharing the black library, according to my view that filesharers are, in effect, unlicensed librarians. (“Black library” is used in the vein of the term “black market”, but since no money has exchanged hands it’s a library not a market.) The files that are being shared online include both material that is protected by copyright law and some that is not but obviously only file sharing of the first kind is illegal.

I have written previously about the commercial effects of disruptive technology (File Sharing and the Pony Express) and have also suggested that rather than theft, the crime that illegal file sharing most resembles is forgery. If you are not familiar with the issues, you might want to check these earlier pieces for context, but for the most part this discussion here is independent of these earlier discussions.

In this piece, I want you to consider some scenarios and ask yourself: which of these situations do you consider unethical? 

 

Thought Experiments

Consider the following context:

You have a PVR (i.e. a digital TV recorder) and access to broadcast television for which there is no fee. You also own some commercially purchased DVDs, and some old video cassettes – both commercially purchased, and those that you recorded off television (sporting events and TV series, say).

Given this set up, which of the following file sharing situations would you deem ethical? (There is not a single answer in each case.)

For each set of scenarios, I will comment on the legality in each case, and also make some notes about my own file sharing activities, but for the most part I will refrain from making moral judgements – that’s up to you!

 

1. Buy and Rip

In the first set of scenarios, let us consider using ripping software to make copies of files you have purchased on DVD.

Which of the following would you deem unethical?

  • Loaning a DVD to a friend (“Buy and Share”)
  • Ripping a DVD in order to make a backup for personal use (“Buy and Backup”)
  • Ripping a DVD in order to make a backup, then giving the DVD to a friend (“Buy and Duplicate”)

Under the copyright laws in most nations, the first two scenarios here would be legal, and the third would be illegal – you would need to maintain possession of the original DVD to retain your entitlement.

 

2. Tape, Take and Keep

In this second set of scenarios, consider the cases where you record content legally on your PVR – does having done so change the moral tone of acquiring copies via file sharing?

Which of the following would you deem unethical?

  • Have recorded content on the PVR, then keep the content indefinitely (“Tape and keep”).
  • Have recorded content on the PVR, then download the equivalent file from the black library in order to make a backup (“Tape and take”).
  • Have recorded content on the PVR, then download the equivalent file from the black library in order to share with a friend (“Tape, take and share”).

Under the copyright laws in most nations, I believe all three of these scenarios are illegal. You are not entitled to keep material recorded off the television indefinitely – although during the era of the VCR, pretty much everyone with a video recorder did exactly this without any obvious moral qualms.

The second scenario is an interesting case – you already possess a copy of the copyrighted material that you recorded on the PVR – is it unethical to take a copy from the black library? If you deem it acceptable to “tape and keep” (which the vast majority of people do, on the basis of VCR usage), why wouldn’t it be acceptable to “tape and take”?

 

3. Tape, Take and Upgrade

Now consider the case of content you have acquired on video cassette, both by purchase and by recording from broadcast television. If you download from the black library in these cases, the likelihood is that you will be improving the quality of the recording (hence “tape and upgrade”).

Given these considerations, which of the following would you deem unethical?

  • Tape and upgrade in the case of a purchased video cassette (“buy and upgrade”).
  • Tape and upgrade in the case of a self-recorded video cassette (“tape and upgrade”).
  • Tape and upgrade, after which you give away (or throw away) the original video cassette (“tape, upgrade and discard”).

Except for the first scenario, these are extensions of “tape and keep” above, so if you deemed “tape and keep” unethical you presumably deem all of these unethical. But as mentioned, most people do not seem to consider “tape and keep” to be immoral.

I suspect all three of these are illegal – I don’t believe possessing a legally purchased video cassette would entitle you to have in your possession a video file of, say, DVD quality (which is what one would assume would be acquired from the black library).

 

4. Attempted Tape and Take

Now suppose that you had set the PVR to record content, but there was a technical fault (a power cut, or a bug in the PVR code) that caused you to miss the content that you were attempting to tape – or perhaps that cut off just the last few minutes of the programme you were taping.

To make up for this problem, you then download the equivalent file for the media in question from the black library in order to watch the content (call this “attempted tape and take”).

Which of the following would you deem unethical?

  • Attempted tape and take, but immediately delete it after watching (“Attempted tape, take and delete”).
  • Attempted tape and take, then keep it indefinitely (“Attempted tape, take and keep”).
  • Attempted tape and take, then share the file with a friend after watching (“Attempted tape, take and share”).

Under most copyright laws, these are all illegal: you do not gain an entitlement to media files from the attempt to record those materials. However, I wonder how many people consider it immoral to download a file under the circumstances of an attempted tape… I myself have certainly carried out an “attempted tape, take and delete” in the case of movies when I  missed the ending of because of bad PVR programming.

 

5. Miss, Watch and Take

Finally, consider instances in which any claim to entitlement by other means (by having recorded previously, purchased etc.) do not apply.

Which of the following would you deem unethical?

  • You discover that you missed a show on broadcast television you wanted to watch, but you hadn’t set the PVR to record it. You download the equivalent file from the black library to watch it (“Miss and take”).
  • You had watched a certain show on TV or PVR in the past. You download the equivalent file in the present to watch it (“Watch and take”).
  • You download content that you didn’t have access to via broadcast television access (at any point) and watch it (“Take and watch”).

All three of these are illegal, although in the case of “miss and take” it would be a grey area if the show in question was available on a catch up service (such as BBC iplayer or 4oD in the UK) provided you neither kept, copied nor shared the file in question. I have certainly carried out a “miss and take” of this kind on a few occasions, although since on demand services appeared on the PS3 I have had less reason to do so.

The final scenario here is the default situation with file sharing of copyrighted material, and is clearly illegal (even without bringing to bear questions about you subsequently copying or sharing it with other people). It’s an interesting question whether the moral tone of this action is changed for anyone by having seen the content in question previously – watching a movie in a cinema does not give you an entitlement to have a copy, after all.

But it’s the first of these three scenarios which interests me the most – if you feel that “attempted tape and take” is morally permissible, what is the difference between this and “miss and take?” If you don’t keep a copy or share it, is “miss and take” really a significantly different situation from “attempted tape and take”? Or does it cross some kind of moral line?

 

Advertising Revenue

One topic not addressed in the discussions above is the removal of advertising. On my PVR, I can skip advertisements with three presses of a button that advances the recording a minute– but I still see brief flashes of the commercials. For the point of view of the advertiser this is a raw deal, but it is still a far is a better situation for them than having the adverts removed entirely, which is the norm on the black library.

Since ad revenue pays for the content on most (but not all) broadcast television channels, sidestepping the commercials disrupts the revenue model and theoretically threatens a reduction in funding to television companies that make the media in question. But this problem is not constrained entirely to the black library, since as mentioned, my PVR legally allows me to skip the adverts.

Furthermore, as product placement becomes increasingly common in television and film one has to wonder if what we are now beginning to encounter is the decline of interstitial advertising in favour of greater integration of endorsements directly into the media we watch. This kind of advertising is immune to interference from the black library, which suggests that this issue may be less important to the ethical arguments surrounding file sharing than it may at first appear.

 

Conclusion

Clearly, if one has moral objections to the black library in and of itself, then any and all actions involving it (e.g. “take” and “upgrade”) will be deemed unethical, but it is my suspicion that a great many people do not have these qualms – people were certainly unconcerned about keeping video cassette recordings indefinitely (“tape and keep”), despite this being technically illegal. I myself have acquired material that was not protected under copyright law (e.g. Doctor Who episode reconstructions) from the black library and see little cause for ethical recriminations in these cases. Would anyone?

If the black library is acceptable in these cases where copyright is not infringed, then a lot of grey area cases (such as “attempted tape and take”) become morally ambiguous. Where exactly is an ethical boundary for file sharing to be drawn? And if the moral boundaries are ambiguous, isn’t this a sign that that the copyright laws themselves have become problematic? The bottom line is that the laws protecting intellectual property were not drawn up under the conditions of infinite supply that now exist for digital media, and without a clear perspective on what our current circumstances mean ethically, we are not in a viable position to attempt legal revisions of any kind despite an urgent need for some kind of reform. Just what that reform will ultimately entail is, at the moment, anyone’s guess.

Please share your views in the comments!

Comments

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I don't see the moral problem in any one of the scenarios you pose. This reflects the fact that I've been sharing media for my entire life.

Before I shared files over the internet, we had a massive collection of Star Trek episodes on VHS. Most of them were taped by my father. When we moved to Israel we had a relative living in America tape them and mail them to us. And sometimes we would borrow a copy a neighbor had gotten their hands on, and copy it to another tape. People would come and borrow these tapes from us, and there was a whole social component that there wouldn't be otherwise. So sharing in all its many forms has always seemed to me the correct way to enjoy culture.

The internet has only made culture richer. Nowadays I download scans of comic books off the internet, edit them into collections and share with friends. I edit the image files to take out typos, and sometimes there are stories with a lot of padding (to fill out the requisite six issues of 22 pages each) which work better with scenes removed. Also, all the modern superhero comics tie together, and if you read the officially-sold collections you'd only be seeing a tiny part of the story. With the computer files I'm able to collect multiple series into coherent stories, and I take great pride in the editing process. The collections I give to friends are superior in many ways to any legal way of reading the same comics.

Is what I'm doing illegal? Sure. I have no illusions about that. But I don't see any part of this as immoral. The experience I get from the "black library" as you call it is superior in almost every way to the legal approach. Why on earth would I want to buy comics where the story is constantly interrupted by ads, and which I can't edit, and can't easily share, and which I can only obtain by travelling to a different city to find a comics store? And the download business models are even worse, because you don't have any ownership over the comics at all and it's a coin-toss whether the content you're looking for will ever be available no matter how long you wait. If there were a way to pay the comics companies for an equally good experience, without having to keep searching the web and IRC channels for what I'm looking for, I'd probably take it. I want to support the people who make comics. But I'm not willing to give up the high standards I expect from my media to do it.

I've found myself struggling with the morality of the black library lately.

I've tried to avoid illegally downloading anything ever since I became a game developer, since it seemed hypocritical to ask people to pay money for my games while still downloading others' games for free. Another reason is that I have less time to play games and more money to buy them with, so I rarely even finish the games I buy.

For games this works fine. I've not felt a need to use the black library for games in a long time. That's mostly because all the games I need are legally available without any problems. With GOG, this even applies to old games.

With music it's pretty much the same, but with movies and TV series it's suddenly very much different.

I'm Finnish and prefer to have TV series and movie with subtitles, preferably in Finnish. I've been having to resort the black library to get that, more and more lately. Most bigger Hollywood movies are readily available, and so are the most popular series (though I've had to occasionally resort to "miss and take" since I don't own a PVR), yes, but there are plenty of ones that are not. And many that are only shown in Finland month or even years after their original air dates. Also, I like watch series in batches rather than an episode per week. DVDs would be the optimal format for me, but, alas, it's difficult to find subtitled ones, whereas most even remotely popular series and movies seem to have even Finnish fan-subtitles just days or weeks after their original air dates.

So, here I am, actually wanting to pay for good content but not being offered to buy it.

Another issue, especially with the "miss and take", is granularity. If I miss an episode in TV, I wouldn't mind paying a reasonable price to watch it from a legal source, but currently the only option is to buy it on DVD and it doesn't really make sense to buy a whole season to see a single episode.

This also relates to paid channels. I've been waiting for the Game of Thrones series for some time now, and now that it's finally coming, the only way to legally watch it here is to subscribe to a paid channel, costing somewhere around 25€ per month. That seems a tad bit high when the only thing I'm interested in is a single series. Why not offer it for a digital download for a reduced price? (I'd gladly pay 5 - 10€ for it).

I don't download files that could cause me issues with law enforcement agencies in countries in which I reside or I am likely to visit. My stance has nothing to do with ethics; it has to do with the practicalities of being at the bottom of the dominance structures. If I felt I could get away with it, I'd cheerfully grab any and all content for immediate or later use, at my discretion.

As a side note, I think the owner of the work is the ultimate authority. If someone creates a show and posts it up on peer-to-peer networks for everyone to share, then ethical issues are moot. I also think the ethical waters are murkier when you might want to buy a copy, but it's not available in what you want; or, if you want one small thing when it's only sold as a larger collection, such as a single skit from a season of a comedy show. So, I'm going to assume for this that the show was broadcast on TV and the copies on the networks are unauthorized and copies are reasonably available for purchase.

Overall, my ethical view of recording and sharing happen to fall along the same lines as what the U.S. court systems refer to as "time shifting". Recording a program is fine if you intend to watch it later. Maybe even a few times later. Where I see one getting into ethical hot water is where you record or share a copy in a situation where you're making a permanent working copy to use in addition to the original, particularly when you're sharing a copy with someone else in order to avoid making a purchase.

The first thing that I raised an issue with in your thought experiment was recording then keeping indefinitely. This seems like a way to avoid a purchase. But, the definition of "indefinitely" gets fuzzy. If I record a show and watch it 5 years later, that doesn't strike me as unethical. If I record a show and watch it 3 times over the next five years, that gets a little iffier. If I record a show and watch it 3 times over the next week, that seems less problematic to me. I think in that second case, you're basically trying to avoid buying the commercial recording, whereas in the other cases you're mostly time-shifting the show a bit.

The issue of missing a show is interesting. I guess the question is if you're time-shifting or avoiding a purchase. Grabbing one show you missed seems to be ethically agreeable to me. Grabbing a whole season of a show you "missed" in the past? Not so much.

I'll admit, I used to download an occasional work form peer-to-peer networks. The thing that replaces that for me these days is Netflix. Pretty much any movie or TV show I care to watch is available on there, sometimes even via instant watch. I've never been the type that had to have a movie on the release day. Hell, I'm usually not the type that is even bothered to go watch a movie in the theater in many circumstance. Others I know have less patience, though. Ultimately, though, I'd like to do what I can to support the people who make things I want to watch. That means buying DVDs or at the very least getting them from Netflix to show support.

Thank you all for your interesting comments! This is a topic that fascinates me, and one that is not nearly as cut and dried as it is usually presented.

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Mory: "The experience I get from the 'black library' as you call it is superior in almost every way to the legal approach."

Yes, this is I think a key point that is overlooked. The assumption is that one cannot compete with the black library because it is free. But in fact, many of the people who are using it, such as yourself, are doing so because of *better service*. If the media providers cannot provide a service at least of the standard of the black library, they have a fundamental problem.

"If there were a way to pay the comics companies for an equally good experience, without having to keep searching the web and IRC channels for what I'm looking for, I'd probably take it. I want to support the people who make comics. But I'm not willing to give up the high standards I expect from my media to do it."

I'm really starting to see the issue here as being akin to a pricing and service dispute. You would be willing to pay, but you want the same level of service. They aren't offering that service, so you get it from the black library instead.

Speaking for myself, I recently installed Freesat and get most of my media legally and for free. I still occasionally use the black library, but most frequently to watch the end of a movie that was misrecorded ("attempted tape take and delete", above). I find it invaluable for this, and would in fact happily pay for an equivalent service with greater reliability and quality. But of course, no such service is on offer!

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Arzi: "I've found myself struggling with the morality of the black library lately."

I too have my qualms. It is not something I do lightly any more. But you have an issue of service, again (much like Mory) - you can get your localised content more easily from the black library than legally. This is a service failure by the media companies. That doesn't eliminate the moral dimension of using the black library, but it does put it into a very different context.

The paid channels are an interesting case as well... they buy shows that will increase demand in order to drive subscription uptake. But how much sense does this business model make in the new digital economy? Less and less, is my feeling. Something has to give here at some point, and as long as the media companies fail to adapt they are ceding income that is rightfully theirs to the black library.

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Peter: forgive me if I characterise your response as "fear of reprisals". :) That doesn't necessarily mean it has "nothing to do with ethics"... You're making a decision not to take unnecessary risks that does have moral consequences. That you are motivated by self-preservation puts you into the egoist camp (on this point), but as I've argued before, even egoists can participate in ethics because many forms of co-operation are mutually beneficial.

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Brian: "I think the owner of the work is the ultimate authority. If someone creates a show and posts it up on peer-to-peer networks for everyone to share, then ethical issues are moot."

I would tend to agree, except up to the point that ethical issues apply to our relationship with the law. Your argument is that the creator of a work has ethical authority over its distribution - which runs counter to the IP laws, and creates a conflict that *is* ethical in nature, albeit at the point of interface between law and ethics. What this indicates to me is how little moral authority the IP laws now hold; many of us don't even consider infringing them to be a moral concern, or at least, view it as a minor issue.

"I also think the ethical waters are murkier when you might want to buy a copy, but it's not available in what you want"

Yes, this is coming up as a theme - the black library often offers better service than the media corporations, and is thus out-competing them in some areas. Personally, I see this as foolishness on the part of the media companies. As I've argued before, they have failed to adapt to the new technological situation.

"Where I see one getting into ethical hot water is where you record or share a copy in a situation where you're making a permanent working copy to use in addition to the original, particularly when you're sharing a copy with someone else in order to avoid making a purchase."

This is certainly where the legal issues come into fullest force. And I think the ethical dimension comes in when you look at it in terms of denial of income... If you watch and enjoy a TV show, say, and make neither money nor brand contributions to that show, you have caused a form of harm.

But there is a counter-argument: since those using the black library are "the geeks of the internet" what if their piracy actually contributes to the rapid brand growth for a particular show (probably a sci fi show)? Could they not end up contributing indirectly in this way? It doesn't eliminate the moral dimensions, but it does recast this issue slightly.

"The first thing that I raised an issue with in your thought experiment was recording then keeping indefinitely. This seems like a way to avoid a purchase."

I agree, which is why I do not keep copies of anything I download from the black library (although rarities, like Doctor Who reconstructions, I will keep until I pass them onto at least two other people).

"The issue of missing a show is interesting. I guess the question is if you're time-shifting or avoiding a purchase. Grabbing one show you missed seems to be ethically agreeable to me. Grabbing a whole season of a show you "missed" in the past? Not so much."

What about people in countries whose TV stations never aired the relevant show? Do you believe they have some implied 'right of access'?

"I'll admit, I used to download an occasional work form peer-to-peer networks. The thing that replaces that for me these days is Netflix... Ultimately, though, I'd like to do what I can to support the people who make things I want to watch. That means buying DVDs or at the very least getting them from Netflix to show support."

Yes, I think this is key - Netflix is providing a service that is better able to compete with the black library in terms of service, and out-competes it in terms of moral responsibility. It has adjusted to the new conditions of the marketplace. When companies do not make this adjustment, they are asking to be out-competed by the black library.

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Thanks again everyone!

Chris wrote:
Your argument is that the creator of a work has ethical authority over its distribution - which runs counter to the IP laws....

I don't believe it does run counter to laws, at least in the U.S. If I own the IP for a show and put it up for free downloading, I'm essentially giving people a license to download it. (This assumes this isn't some sort of ploy to harvest names of scofflaws to report to the authorities, of course.) I'm authorizing copies under copyright. You might get into some tricky business with moral rights, but those have less force in the U.S. than other areas.

For me, this control is the crux of the argument. Copyright is to give the owner the right to restrict copies if they see fit; it follows logically that if I don't want to restrict copies, then there should be no problem. The "pro" side sees limiting copies as harmful, the "anti" side sees any copies as harmful, and the truth is somewhere in between.

Yes, this is coming up as a theme - the black library often offers better service than the media corporations, and is thus out-competing them in some areas. Personally, I see this as foolishness on the part of the media companies. As I've argued before, they have failed to adapt to the new technological situation.

I think the problem is on both ends. The companies haven't adjusted, but the consumers have also entered this fantasyland where they can consume content for free then expect it to keep being generated. (One could draw parallels here with how citizens also want lower taxes without the loss of services that can no longer be paid for without sufficient tax revenue.) In the case of someone who wants subtitles in a less-supported language, there's nothing stopping them from buying the show legitimately then downloading the format they want. But, most people would argue that this is "wasteful", ignoring the company argument that supporting a minority language is not profitable, either. There is a precedent for this where anime fans will get a "fansub" of a hot anime off torrents quickly with the understanding that they should buy the actual copy once its licensed to show support for the show.

...what if their piracy actually contributes to the rapid brand growth for a particular show...?

What is the goal of "rapid brand growth" for most companies? Ultimately, it's to make money. So, someone downloading a copy without paying for a legitimate copy (or even watching ads) is not worthwhile for most companies, even if it does act as "free advertising" or promote "brand awareness". These things are desirable not in and of themselves, but because they hopefully lead to more sales or sales of advertising.

You can argue, as some pro-piracy people have with music, that piracy can spur sales after people sample the work. But, I believe there is a non-trivial number of people who download and enjoy a work with no intention of ever paying for it, and it's entirely likely that some of those people would have bought the work if not able to get it for free. And while you can argue that people might pay for "better quality", I think the success of Walmart shows that people put a lot more emphasis on price and convenience than quality. No matter what you do, paying a legitimate copy is never going to be cheaper and easier than going to the black library.

Ultimately, I think the issue is that cause and effect have been decoupled from some people's understanding when it comes to entertainment. We live in an age where we have an embarrassment of riches in entertainment, but some don't realize we need to support the work we appreciate to get more of it. But, that's probably beyond the scope of this ethical discussion.

Thanks for posting, Chris. A very insightful article that made me think about my own position more. :)

"And I think the ethical dimension comes in when you look at it in terms of denial of income... If you watch and enjoy a TV show, say, and make neither money nor brand contributions to that show, you have caused a form of harm."

How do you figure?

I do not own a working TV. I do not have access to any cable channels. I get TV shows a few hours after they are aired in their original countries. If I didn't have access to the internet it may well be that I'd pay for a TV set, and the cable channels, and a digital video recorder, and medications to keep me sane as I wait years for a show to be available, and other media companies to pass the time when it never comes. So I suppose it could be argued that I am "denying income" to the local cable services and the TV manufacturers and the DVR manufacturers and the local psychiatrists and other media companies by just downloading shows off the internet.

But apart from insurance policies, we don't pay for theoretical scenarios. I do have access to the internet, and with that in mind I consider the old-fashioned business models to be pathetic. If the companies ever wake up to the fact that the world has changed, they may find that I'll pay for TV shows. But if I do, it is for my own self-interest and not for any ethical obligation. (I have a vested interest as a fan in keeping my favorite shows profitable.) I don't see that there is any ethical issue here.

So again I repeat: how do you figure that enjoying something which everyone knows is freely available is somehow "denying income"? Who is being denied income, who has made any effort to get it?

(this post applies Kripke's notion of reference and necessity)

This is a fascinating post. Piracy is an issue that Michael and Antisophie and I often discuss. You've coined a term so brilliantly, the 'Black Library', and I think your formulations of the ethical situations are interesting.

I'm not going to comment on the wrongness or rightness of the issues here, but I'll say that it is interesting with the case of the case of 'Tape and Upgrade'.

The film 'Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope' is different to 'Star Wars' (1977), the 'Star Wars: Episode IV [...] (1997) is different to 'Star Wars [...] IV [...] (2004), and I've learned that there are even variations in the editorial cuttings and dialogue mixing even in the versions that came out in 1977, or the releases from 1977 - 1981 of what is basically the same film.

I think something here to do with canon and megatexts would interpretatively see the film as basically the same work, but in the terms of exactness, they are not the same film or the same product commercially. If we are to conceive these editions of the same George Lucas film as different, then it is also conceivable that a film, or episode or product in one format may be de re (using metaphysical parlance) a different thing.

If you had old style episodes of Doctor Who from 1980s VHS recordings from (say) the Sylvester McCoy Era, and somehow you came across a DVD version of the same episodes, irrespective of any editorial differences they are, I would see the product as different, by virtue of the medium, the encoding medium and the data.

Likewise it is the same case to say that a re-made game (not an emulation) on a new format console or programming scheme is a different game de re. I would deem this a difference that is significant to our moral calculation of the situation.

Regards,
Sinistre

Brian: ""If I own the IP for a show and put it up for free downloading..."

Sure, my point was you were talking about the "creator" and for most media the creator is *not* the IP owner. Obviously if they are, there's no problem.

"I think the problem is on both ends. The companies haven't adjusted, but the consumers have also entered this fantasyland where they can consume content for free then expect it to keep being generated."

I agree - my position is that neither side is wholly in the right, nor wholly in the wrong. Both need to move closer to the centre. But since the media companies have the most to lose, the onus is on them to facilitate the change.

"What is the goal of 'rapid brand growth' for most companies? Ultimately, it's to make money."

True, but capitalisation of brands is not always strongest in the media products themselves. For instance, licensing of music for commercials and movie soundtracks can generate more revenue that sales of the track itself in many instances.

To make money, a new brand has to pick up momentum - piracy can help that momentum. So I think there is some ambiguity here. But this argument assumes the number of people accessing the black library are in the minority - there is a 'tragedy of the commons' risk here, in that if no-one pays the goods in question don't get made.

"But, I believe there is a non-trivial number of people who download and enjoy a work with no intention of ever paying for it, and it's entirely likely that some of those people would have bought the work if not able to get it for free."

Yes, I would say that many more people download it who wouldn't buy it than would, though. So you might be losing (say) 5% of your revenue but gaining (say) 1,000% more exposure. For a mature brand, that just looks like a loss. But for a growing brand, that could be a massive gain.

"Thanks for posting, Chris. A very insightful article that made me think about my own position more. :)"

Thanks for the kind words! I find this subject fascinating, and always welcome informed debate on the topic.

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Mory:
CB: "And I think the ethical dimension comes in when you look at it in terms of denial of income... If you watch and enjoy a TV show, say, and make neither money nor brand contributions to that show, you have caused a form of harm."
MB: "How do you figure?"

On the basis of a 'tragedy of the commons' argument - viewed in isolation, one individual's non-contribution is trivial, but if everyone does it then the goods in question disappear. This is what I mean by 'a form of harm'.

But note that I'm not saying that there aren't cases whereby the black library makes more sense than purchase - this is especially true for people living in third world countries for whom the purchase of media from the US market (the principle marketplace for media) would be unreasonably expensive.

I'm not saying that you have an ethical obligation to subscribe to the local cable companies, but I am saying that non-contribution is a form of harm. You recognise this since you say "I have a vested interest as a fan in keeping my favorite shows profitable."

"I don't see that there is any ethical issue here."

Ethics is concerned with the question "how shall we live?" This question even extends to cases of self-interest. That's why this is an ethical issue.

"So again I repeat: how do you figure that enjoying something which everyone knows is freely available is somehow "denying income"? Who is being denied income, who has made any effort to get it?"

I think your statement here answers itself - you know who is being denied income (the media creators). Your argument is they haven't done a very job getting it. I agree. But there failure in this regard is irrespective of the effects of your actions, which I'm claiming is a form of harm on the basis of a 'tragedy of the commons' argument - if everyone did it, the goods in question would disappear.

Hope this is clearer!

Also, I would make the case that what your position in effect argues for is a fee paid from the internet service providers to the media companies, which would close the gap in the business model. You'd end up paying for your media by a small price increase in your ISP costs. Would you tolerate that, I wonder?

Thanks for continuing our discussion!

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Sinistre: is there a paper reference for Kripke's notions of reference and necessity? I'm rather fond of Kripke. :)

[Star Wars example]
"I think something here to do with canon and megatexts would interpretatively see the film as basically the same work, but in the terms of exactness, they are not the same film or the same product commercially."

'Basically the same work' is an interesting claim, isn't it, because this is also an admission that they are different works! :) What counts as "the same" in the case of media such as this is quite ambiguous... I'm not sure we can claim that the CGI'd versions of these movies are the same, any more than we can claim that a book and a movie made from the book are the same. There is some relation, but what is it?

But I agree that they are not the same product commercially - and this has obvious implications in the wider discussion. So I agree with this part of your argument - but I'm not sure that I agree about 'same work'. (Hell, they don't even have the same *name* since "Star Wars" was not originally called "A New Hope").

Personally, I'd love to see a version of Star Wars that had the original flaws - because I enjoy old special effects for what they are. But I don't think I can actually get such a version any more. Something has been lost. (Perhaps it is preserved in the black library, I haven't checked...)

As for editorial variations - this fascinates me, as I'm sure the first version of Star Wars I saw in 1977 had Biggs in it. But then I wonder: did I composite a memory of this from other Star Wars branded media I owned at the time?

Anyway, now *wildly* off topic! :)

---
Thanks for the comments everyone!

@chris: indeed several center-left parties on the continent have toyed with the idea of a "culture" flat rate on "cultural/entertainment" content to be paid as a mandatory addition on top of your broadband fee regardless of your actual usage. In Germany at least, public broadcasting is paid for by a similar compulsory fee raised from anyone qwning a radio / tv set - essentially a broadcasting service tax.

translucy: yes, here in the UK something similar was briefly considered, but it didn't get very far. Politically, though, trying to eliminate this issue wholly through law enforcement is a losing battle.

And like Germany, the UK has a "TV license" i.e. a tax that pays for the BBC. Many people are against it, and certainly it has issues - I heard that the chief cause of women ending up in prison was failure to pay the TV license (although I haven't been able to verify this). Personally, I'm grateful for a quality public broadcasting service, and have no desire to head towards the state of NPR in the States.

Best wishes!

"Also, I would make the case that what your position in effect argues for is a fee paid from the internet service providers to the media companies, which would close the gap in the business model. You'd end up paying for your media by a small price increase in your ISP costs. Would you tolerate that, I wonder?"

Absolutely not. I'm not paying for things I have no interest in. I suppose it wouldn't be substantially different for paying for a whole cable package when you want a handful of shows, but I'm not willing to do that either.

I don't think everyone moving to the internet would make culture disappear. It would only force culture to adapt. It might make Hollywood disappear, but the people who work in Hollywood will still find ways to do what they do. And they'll do it with more realistic business models.

Mory: The point of the increase in fees is that the money would be distributed between the media providers; it could even be directly related to what is downloaded - but this might open up issues of privacy. So it need not be a case of paying for things you have no interest in, but again, to avoid the generalised fee might mean reduced privacy with respect to the internet.

Hollywood, on the whole, isn't enormously at risk, since the bulk of its income comes from theatrical release which has not been hit by internet media. It's television which is perhaps the most vulnerable, and in this respect I'm curious as to what business model you see as "more realistic" for, say, television show production in the case of a mass migration to the internet.

Thank for your comment!

Like I said, a donation-based model, possibly with a short ad after each episode trying to convince viewers to pay. It's free, but if you care whether or not it continues you pay. There could be little bonuses for people who pay, or maybe the quality of the video would be better. The budgets would need to be substantially smaller, I imagine. But it could work.

Then again, I have no business sense. So what do I know.

Mory: I have wondered what would happen with media on a shareware model, as you suggest. What I *am* sure of is that the media corporations would be radically opposed to such a model! :)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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