09 July 2010

Pirates, Hoarders, Saviors of Culture?

This post by David Pogue is not interesting for David Pogue (who I rarely find interesting), but for the letter it reproduces, the issue it raises, and some of the 300+ comments it has generated. The fundamental issue it raises concerns those (many, MANY) people who are engaged in scanning and trading print materials in the same way millions do music and movies. The particular subject here is sheet music, but it could be anything ever put into print. I've been involved with this professionally for some time, for example, in creating a digital library for Syriac scholars. For this project we only included out-of-copyright materials, but informally scholars trade copyrighted research materials on a massive scale, just like these music traders. With equal excitement and glee, and a similar lack of compunction.

Academic swapping and hoarding of copyrighted material is called research and is protected in some measure, ostensibly, by fair-use laws. These laws exist to facilitate research and creative work. There is no possible way any scholar could purchase all research materials used. But no scholar was ever sued or even called a pirate for photocopying (now, scanning) an article or monograph, because you can't produce more articles and monographs without doing this. Copyright law was always meant to curb commercial exploitation of another's creative work, not to prevent the use of that work in creating new work, whether artistic or scientific.

Also, I'm not sure copyright law was originally intended to curb the profitless enjoyment of creative work without payment to the copyright holder, who so very often is not even the creator, but rather a commercial exploiter of creators. But I'm no legal scholar and that's another topic.

When a pianist, as in this article, collects all the significant piano music ever published, pops it on a thumbdrive, and gives it away to other pianists, I have a hard time seeing any difference between that pianist and most scholars. Probably, true enough, this is sowing some seeds of destruction, but it also contains the seeds of creation. And I don't know why doing this is fair-use if you work at a university but piracy if you, well, work for a living. But of course, if academics ran the world, we'd replace copyright with open access on day one, or at least some generous implementation of Creative Commons licensing.

I see this as principally an economic problem, as many commenters to this article pointed out. People with more time than money will always trade and hoard, but put all this sheet music in a database and charge $10/mo for access, and much of this activity would stop. The people who did not stop are mostly people who would not buy your stuff anyway (i.e., the teenager in the article). This is just the market's way of saying that prices are too high and selection too limited. If your time is worth anything, this traded music is not free. People spend years collecting this stuff, at a very high effective cost. It's just cheaper than the alternative, and for many rare or out-of-print works, the only alternative. As one commenter observed:

    This is actually quite an interesting economic phenomenon. The fact that people illegally acquire content that is copyrighted shows the imperfect market. We, as consumers, don't always find the suppliers we want. As an example, in my town I cannot buy bok choi in the supermarket. I'd have to drive really far away to get it. I don't have the option of "stealing" it in any way that is easier. The internet allows this, though, and it's something classical economics hasn't thought about much: Stealing as a means of overcoming the imperfect market system.

1 comment:

Mister Fweem said...

Sorry. My comment was too long to post: http://misterfweem.blogspot.com/2010/07/awl-ah-wahnt-is-mah-monnnaayy.html