The shutdown of Megaupload a few days ago has prompted much heated debate. On one side, the supporters of unlimited file-sharing – outraged at the audacity of the US authorities in taking away their perceived right to upload and download any kind of content at whim. On the other side, artistes, their representatives, those who profit from the sale of their work, and anyone else with a strong need for copyright protection.
On the face of it, the Megaupload bust might look like a victory for the fat cat over the ‘people’. A win for the bloated movie execs and recording execs, with their £$billions in the bank, wanting even greater profits, and taking the first step towards securing them. But whilst it can be seen like that, this wasn’t just a victory for massive businesses.
So many people across the web fall victim to copyright and content theft. Far from most of them being massive, stinking rich companies, the vast majority are ordinary people who make insignificant sums of money from their creative works. They can face a very hard time trying to get their work removed from sites which are hosting it in breach of copyright. The copyright owners have the law on their side, but many sites have still made it much easier for the content thief to keep offending, over and over again, than for the legit copyright holder to take down a single infringement. Above all, though, let's not overlook the fact that Megaupload was itself a massive, fat cat business. A victory for the fats cats over the 'people', could quite easily be seen the other way round.
One of the things that’s baffled me during this major development, is the phenomenon of the blogger, forum poster or even Twitter user, who proclaims his/her fundamental right to download commercial mp3s or mp4s for free from file sharing sites, but blubs like a baby the split second someone nicks his/her content and re-posts it without attribution. It’s all exactly the same thing! It’s copyright theft. If you don’t support the idea of someone stealing your own content, how can you be in favour of stealing someone else’s? Of course, without being a hypocrite, you can’t.
WAS THE MEGAUPLOAD BUST A VICTORY FOR CENSORSHIP?
No. No one is trying to stop file sharing. What the authorities don’t like, is irresponsible, illegal file sharing, which robs the content creators of the income they're entitled to, and hands it to an online leech. This issue has nothing to do with censorship. Censorship would remove all access to a file. Copyright enforcement doesn't do that. It’s not about the authorities saying: “We’ll see to it that no one can download that file”. It’s about them saying: “If the creator or legal copyright holder states that you have to pay for the file, then you have to pay for it.” That’s always been part of the law. The same law that says you can’t just walk into the supermarket and take your shopping without paying for it. No one in their right mind would suggest that not being allowed to nick groceries is a censorship issue. Why would they suggest that not being allowed to nick movies or music, is?
If file-sharing hosts act responsibly and take reasonable measures to discourage and where necessary prevent copyright infringement, they’re in no danger. But the problem is, up until the Megaupload bust, some file hosts had gone all out to encourage the sharing of illegal files – which they knew would make up a massive chunk of their business. The attitude was one of arrogance. The hosts knew they were facilitating and in some cases even promoting copyright infringement on the grandest of scales, but wanted to continue making vast profits on the back of that, without taking any responsibility for their pivotal role in an illegal process. But already, since Megaupload went down, the file hosts have showed obvious signs of taking copyright infringement more seriously. That’s a good thing, which ultimately, I believe, is in everyone’s favour…
WILL THIS LEAD TO THE ELIMINATION OF FREE DOWNLOADS?
No. There’ll always be free downloads, however tightly copyright is controlled on the web. The free download is actually a viable business model and will therefore continue to be offered on a legitimate basis. Even though you don’t have to pay anything for the file(s) you’re downloading, the person or company offering them may be generating revenue from third parties. For some media creators this is a better and more viable way of generating revenue than charging for the files.
Of course, per download, third party revenue will only be a tiny fraction of what the media creator would make per unit were they to directly charge downloaders for the file(s). But free downloads can outnumber paid downloads by a massive ratio. Free downloads can also be advertised much more easily – normally, without the advertiser being accused of spam. Links to free downloads can spread very quickly too, of their own accord. Is it better to sell your media and get an eventual total of, say, five hundred downloads, or give away your media and potentially have your eventual download stats running into millions? Given that publicity is power, the latter option proves much more attractive to many individuals and companies. The free download will always be a part of web culture.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the latest blockbuster movie will continue to be available for free. But don’t forget that the Internet is a market. Once it becomes extremely difficult to download major commercial media without paying for it, it’s likely that many new instances of free entertainment will spring up to take the place of the illegal download. If file sharing hosts can no longer make money from illegal downloads, they’ll inevitably look at ways to make more money from legal downloads. That could be really healthy for free online entertainment in general. Better promotion for smaller media creators, who at present are eclipsed by Hollywood, global pop stars, internationally renowned writers, etc. There are some fantastic legitimately free vids on YouTube which are funnier than any Hollywood comedies I know of. Some of them have had fewer than a thousand hits. Why? Because everyone’s too busy downloading heavily-hyped all-star movies for free, to even look for anything else.
If a culture was to build, in which web users were increasingly turning to small media creators for their entertainment, there’d be a number of positives.
1. The power of the fat cat media companies who strangle the market through brainwash-level promotion would be reduced, as people became more aware of the (free) alternatives.
2. With massive file hosts throwing their weight behind the best of legitimately free entertainment, the online impact of the big movie and music companies could significantly diminish, and this may well force them to rethink their strategies in favour of the consumer. They may even be forced to offer some free entertainment of their own.
3. Downloaders in general could end up with a much broader choice of ‘visible’ media, and that would be healthy for society as a whole.
4. You, personally, would have greater potential for recognition on the web. If you dabble in movie making, or create music, or take photographs, or write, or do anything else which might entertain or engage other people, then your profile and level of recognition can only gain from a clampdown on illegal downloads. The illegal download can seem like a very ‘punk’ and cool thing. But actually, the effect it has runs opposite to the punk ethos. It keeps public consciousness flooded and saturated with the same tired products from the same tired people, and that stifles out the newcomers, who can so often provide something truly different.
So was it a good thing Megaupload got shut down? Well, as usual, a horrendous number of legitimate users were penalised for a rogue business’s shortcomings. I know of heaps of Megaupload users who only used it for legal content, with the knowledge and permission of the content creator, and in some cases had uploads running into the thousands. They now have to start again, from scratch, and I’m greatly sympathetic towards them. But at least one high profile organisation had to be made an example of in order for copyright theft to be taken seriously. There are still countless leeches on the web who make the lion’s share of their earnings from other people’s work - without permission, and without any sort of cut for the legitimate copyright holder. It’s wrong, it discourages creative people from putting in the effort, and it needs to be stopped. The Megaupload bust has finally struck some fear into those who simply don’t care about being responsible for their own businesses, and that’s certainly a positive side to a very negative event.