Jonathan Coulton On MegaUpload, SOPA & More

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Guest post by musician Jonathan Coulton.

Uh oh, he's blogging. What happened? I wrote this thing on Twitter this morning about the MegaUpload shutdown, and it's gotten some crazy traction on the old internet. In addition, I've just done a couple of interviews for NPR on the subject, and I think I may have said some crazy, provocative things. There are many comments and questions out there already with more to come, and rather than have a bunch of separate discussions on a bunch of different social media platforms, I thought I would put some of my thoughts here.

First of all, I was being sarcastic. I did not see an uptick in sales because one piracy site got shut down, nor do I expect to.

Second, this was a tweet, so it was <=140 characters of ha ha, and not designed to be a thorough discussion of all the issues. I recognize these things are complicated.

Obviously none of us knows the complete truth, but I'm guessing that the people who ran MegaUpload were knowingly profiting from the unauthorized download of other people's intellectual property (including mine). Probably they were making a lot of money that way. That's certainly illegal, and it doesn't exactly give them the moral high ground either. In fact, it's kind of a dick move. Essentially, they did bad things and they got in trouble for it. Here are the issues that, for me, make this complicated.

Along with all the illegal stuff happening on MegaUpload was some amount of completely legal stuff. People used MegaUpload to send large files around. Some number of those files were personal files owned by the people sending them. I have no idea what the ratio was, and probably it would be impossible to figure that out with any certainty, but let's stipulate that it was a very large percentage of illegal activity, and only a very tiny percentage of the users were there for anything other than downloading content that they didn't buy. Still, today that tiny percentage had something taken away from them, without warning, maybe just a service they liked using, but maybe a piece of digital media that belonged to them – if they uploaded something and didn't keep a copy, that thing is now gone. Them's the breaks I guess, but in evaluating whether this shutdown was a net positive for us humans, you have to take that into account.

Even some of the illegal usage was likely the kind of activity that approaches what I consider to be victimless piracy: people downloading stuff they already bought but lost, people downloading stuff they missed on TV and couldn't find on Netflix or iTunes, people downloading stuff they didn't like and regretted watching or hearing and never would have bought anyway, people downloading a Jonathan Coulton album (oh let's say, Artificial Heart, the new Jonathan Coulton album, which is an awesome Jonathan Coulton album called Artificial Heart) and loving it so much that in a year they decide to buy a ticket to a Jonathan Coulton show and walk up to the merch table and hand me $20. I know not everyone will think all of those things are victimless crimes, and even I can admit that some of them maybe kinda sorta have victims, but my point is that you can't easily say that every illegal download is a lost sale, because it's a lot more complicated than that. So when you evaluate the "damage" that a site like MegaUpload is causing, you have to think about these things too. The grand jury indictment against them says they've caused $500 million in damages to copyright owners. Given the complexity of actual usage on a site like MegaUpload, how can they possibly know that?

The real question in my mind these days, and what I was trying to get at with my little tweet, is: how much does piracy really hurt content creators (specifically, me)? Professional smart person Tim O'Reilly posted something that made me think about this question again in regards to SOPA/PIPA. He points out that any proponent of SOPA/PIPA starts with the assumption that all this piracy is causing great harm to lots of people and companies. Here's his pull quote, taken from a recent statement about SOPA issued by the White House:

"Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders."

Is it really as dire as all that? It's an emergency is it? Tim points out that he and a lot of other content creators have been happily coexisting with piracy all this time, and I'm certainly one of them. Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There's your anti-piracy plan. The big content companies are TERRIBLE at doing both of these things, so it's no wonder they're not doing so well in the current environment. And right now everyone's fighting to control distribution channels, which is why I can't watch Star Wars on Netflix or iTunes. It's fine if you want to have that fight, but don't yell and scream about how you're losing business to piracy when your stuff isn't even available in the box I have on top of my TV. A lot of us have figured out how to do this.

So if you can stand me sounding a little crazy, listen: where is the proof that piracy causes economic harm to anyone? Looking at the music business, yes profits have gone down ever since Napster, but has anyone effectively demonstrated the causal link between that and piracy? There are many alternate theories (people buying songs and not whole albums, music sucking more, niches and indie acts becoming more viable, etc.). The Swiss government did a study and determined that unauthorized downloading (which 1/3 of their citizens do) does not create any loss in revenue for the entertainment industry. I remember but am now too lazy to find links to other studies that say the same thing. I can't think of any study I've seen that demonstrates the opposite. If there is one, please point me to it. So I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the federal government is directing resources toward an ultimately ineffective game of piracy whack-a-mole (with some unknown amount of collateral damage to law-abiding citizens), when we are not even sure that piracy is a problem.

And if you can stand me sounding even crazier, here is this: making money from art is not a human right. It so happens that technological and societal blahbity bloos have conspired to create a situation where selling songs about monkeys and robots is a viable business, but for most of human history people have NOT paid for art. I don't want this to happen again, and I would be very sad if this came to pass, but it's not up to me to decide. We are constantly demonstrating through our actions what we believe to be the norms for acquiring and consuming content. Right now a lot of us think that it's OK to download stuff through illegal sites under certain circumstances, and a lot of us think it's totally fine to use those things to make videos and put them on YouTube even though YouTube profits from it. That's not ME saying that, that's US saying that – we're a nation of pirates and infringers. Based on our behavior, you would not be wrong to deduce that some of us think funny videos on YouTube are more important than honoring intellectual property rights. This kind of thing has happened before. Entire industries rise and fall as the world changes and our priorities shift. Sorry.

I believe in copyright. I benefit from it. I don't want it to go away. I love that we have laws and people to enforce them. But if I had to give up one thing, if I had to choose between copyright and the wild west, semi-lawless, innovation-fest that is the internet? I'll take the internet every time.

Now you may comment. I'm going to watch this thread and respond when I can, and we're going to have a nice discussion. We're not going to have fights and call each other names, and if you're a jerk, I'm going to delete the jerky things you say. (And if you infringe on my copyright I'm going to send federal agents to your home and throw your computers IN THE GARBAGE.)

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  1. Insightful post. This might just stem from my love of live music, but I think the future of the music industry (at least relating to the monetary aspects of it) is based on what music has primarily always been about: Gathering and performance. In other words, I think artists (and labels, in the instances where they actually have a clue about how to help the artists) should be striving to create enjoyable live shows; while recordings can be (and is) pirated and easily found, and while there are of course many benefits of recording music and releasing it, the concert experience is something that is bound strictly to being-there.

  2. A few years back Boing Boing posted a link (http://boingboing.net/2006/03/18/canadian-recording-i.html) to a Canadian music industry study that concluded P2P wasn’t actually bad for business, but it seems that the link in the BB stub isn’t valid any more. I think there have been others on there since then, but I can’t be bothered to find them at the moment.
    I think your last point finally hits on the uncomfortable truth that all of us musicians/artist/creative people have been trying not to admit for the last few years. If people don’t want to pay for the stuff we make, they won’t, and we can’t force them to. All we can really do is try to make our art something that people DO want to pay for.

  3. Hey Jonathan, thanks for the post. I respect your view as a musician with a dog in the fight (and I like your music too).
    For whatever it’s worth, we’ve seen a lot of data out there that shows how harmful illegal downloading is to musicians. Check out official U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data in our blog post here: http://www.riaa.com/blog.php?content_selector=riaa-news-blog&blog_selector=Illegal Downloading_Fewer Musicians&news_month_filter=7&news_year_filter=2010&searchterms=Illegal downloading = fewer musicians&terminclude=&termexact=
    It shows a direct link between music sales and number of people working as musicians/artists, and when the former declines, so does the latter.
    Anyway, food for thought as we all ponder these issues…
    take care

  4. Hey Jonathan,
    Fantastic post!!! I was wondering what your thoughts are on the difference (or commonality) between “Illegal” downloading and 2nd hand record stores.

  5. Jonathan, first, extreme respect to you and thanks for posting.
    I don’t buy the “make it easy to buy” argument, at least for music. Movies, yes. Music, no. Music is available from Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Rdio, Mog, Spotify Rhapsody, and almost every carrier, plus 40 others. It is easy to get from the over 60 legal outlets in the US, and that is clearly not the problem.
    In terms of piracy being bad for everyone, labels are just VCs for artists. Everyone in Silicon Valley gets the importance of VC money, and while not everyone needs it (e.g. yourself), if the label money dries up, there will be fewer people able to make music as their day job. Other than you (you’re smarter, probably), most major artists without label backing today needed a label to get there.
    Why does this matter to silicon valley? A significant portion of internet companies depend on the existence of high value content (music, movies, etc) for relevance.
    Music is probably over 1/3rd of the revenue generating content on Youtube. Who has the largest followers on twitter? What are people discussing and liking on social networks? How popular is “lyrics” on Google as a search term (answer: more popular than “sex” in the US http://www.google.com/trends/?q=sex,+lyrics&ctab=0&geo=us&date=all&sort=0 )? Would Apple be as huge today if it wasn’t for the iPod?
    Internet companies depend on the existence of content to make them sticky and relevant and (often) profitable. If high value content starts to dry up due to piracy, that’s not good for them either.
    Please don’t throw my computer in the garbage.

  6. “And if you can stand me sounding even crazier, here is this: making money from art is not a human right”
    You are sounding a little crazy :-))) because IT IS actually a human right, it’s part of the Declaration of Human Rights You have the right to be protected from piracy and other people illegaly profing from your work and making money out of it, such as Megaupload.
    From the United Nations Organisation website : http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
    Article 27/(2) “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”
    Please don’t throw my computer in the garbage.

  7. Hey!
    I’ve been interested in this issue for a very long time now and I actually wrote my bachelor study in economics about music and filesharing. And I’m from Switzerland. And I am a musician, playing and singing in the band BluePearl (www.facebook.com/bluepearltheband).
    So I read a lot about it and I studied around 20 studies, of which the majority says that filesharing does not have a negative impact on the music industry. Most of them even say it had a positive one! The definition of “music industry” is the crucial point. The industry, that’s not only the labels but also for example the concert agencies, festivals, music sellers and of course the artists. And the whole part of the industry have grown for the last ten years.
    So what I found out in my studying time were three things on this topic:
    1. The big labels lost their control over the distribution channels. And they want them back no matter what it costs.
    So what’s their thinking? They just want to really kill all the Internet industries like iTunes, Google and so on because they doesn’t favor the major label’s artists that much and they earn much money the labels want to have by themselves.
    2. The artists have never had such a power
    Today an artist can reach much more people if he/she is really good. So it’s never been as easy for an artist to all do it by himself/herself. The labels are sometimes simply obsolete and useless. That kicks them into a very weak position if they want to get a successful artist. So they want to get the power in negotiations back.
    3. The labels and the big associations of the music industry still fight against the Internet than to work with it.
    @swiftindie: It’s unfortunately completely untrue that all music is available everywhere. For example in Germany there are still a lot of YouTube-videos banned and here in Switzerland you search for many songs on iTunes and can’t find them. So if the music was really available everywhere, a lot of piracy would be banned.
    In a lot of surveys in the studies, the people are claimed to be simply too lazy to search for the legal music if they can just type the song’s name into a searching field and will find it a few seconds later for free downloading.
    So in fact, this issue is far to complex to just being regulated by such unfair laws like SOPA and PIPA, especially for the artists, too. I don’t really agree what MegaUpload did but I completely agree with the argument that people more likely should listen to your music than never have any possibility to get to know you, because they cannot pay anything for your music.
    P.S. let me just answer a few comments here:
    @StephenCabbs: I agree with you. The live music has grown incredibly for the last ten years! It’s absolutely the future!
    @Cara: just take a look at your link and you’ll see who’s really had an important influence on that study.
    @Ghostwriter: I think just if everyone has the right to protection of his music does not actually impement that everyone has the right to earn money from it. Otherwise the hedgefonds should get the right to profit, too ;-)!

  8. Good post. Suck on this fact; since Megaupload was shown the exit, my downloads and streaming income have gone up 3 to 5%. Coincidence? I think not. I really like to see iTunes overall sales figures for the last 5 days. If they spiked, I’d say there was some correlation. Can anyone access that information?

  9. Hi Jonathan,
    You raise constructive points. Allow me to share my basic view on the crux of your points:
    1) Today 26 Jan 2012, I believe to be a point in time in which we are trying but still do not have fully clear and shared commercial, practical and legal norms for OCFs (Online Content Facilitators such as Youtube, Megaupload, Spotify, I-tunes, Piratebay etc…). A lot of effort is there but no ideal resolution yet 😉
    We should conscientiously strive and continue to work towards such norms.
    2) The MVC, Music Value Chain ( I intentionally will limit myself to music here) will remain in “shake-up mode” or “in a state of disruption” until these shared norms materialize.
    3) I understand and respect that the process towards those norms will take time and disruptive pain !!!
    That’s how our current free market works. Looming at the end lie all the benefits of the great and exciting new innovative Internet ways of content distribution in the MVC.
    I call upon all people to agree that it would be beneficial and good if we could all just respect the disruptive process we are in and should be in. It’s the only way in a free market economy.
    4) Finally, I believe that it would help clarify, shorten and optimize the current disruptive process, if all key stakeholders would always first answer the following 2 basic questions:
    (a) Which stake do I primarily represent ? and
    (b) What do I see (for my stake) as my ideal ultimate Goal and mission for the MVC ? (Music Value Chain aka the Music Industry)
    From that base, a great discourse with great opportunities lies ahead !
    ( I am on Twitter as @ElShaifo )

  10. “@Ghostwriter: I think just if everyone has the right to protection of his music does not actually impement that everyone has the right to earn money from it. Otherwise the hedgefonds should get the right to profit, too ;-)!”
    I think you misunderstood. I’m saying exactly the opposite of what you wrote.

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