Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Real Danger of Copying Music (It’s Not What You Think)


When copying is easy, there is almost no intrinsic scarcity, and therefore market value collapses. There’s an endless debate about whether file sharing is “stealing.” It’s an argument I’d like to avoid, since I don’t really care to have a moral position on a software function. Copying in the abstract is vapid and neutral.
It would be unfair to demand that people cease pirating files when those same people are not paid for their participation in very lucrative networks.

To get ahead of the argument a little, my position is that we eventually shouldn’t “pirate” files, but it’s premature to condemn people who do it today. It would be unfair to demand that people cease sharing / pirating files when those same people are not paid for their participation in very lucrative network schemes. Ordinary people are relentlessly spied on, and not compensated for information taken from them.

While I would like to see everyone eventually pay for music and the like, I would not ask for it until there’s reciprocity.

What matters most is whether we are contributing to a system that will be good for us all in the long term. If you never knew the music business as it was, the loss of what used to be a significant middle-class job pool might not seem important. I will demonstrate, however, that we should perceive an early warning for the rest of us.

Copying a musician’s music ruins economic dignity. It doesn’t necessarily deny the musician any form of income, but it does mean that the musician is restricted to a real-time economic life. That means one gets paid to perform, perhaps, but not paid for music one has recorded in the past.
It is one thing to sing for your supper occasionally, but to have to do so for every meal forces you into a peasant’s dilemma.

It is one thing to sing for your supper occasionally, but to have to do so for every meal forces you into a peasant’s dilemma: The peasant’s dilemma is that there’s no buffer. A musician who is sick or old, or who has a sick kid, cannot perform and cannot earn. A few musicians, a very tiny number indeed, will do well, but even the most successful real-time-only careers can fall apart suddenly because of a spate of bad luck. Real life cannot avoid those spates, so eventually almost everyone living a real-time economic life falls on hard times.

Meanwhile, some third-party spy service like a social network or search engine will invariably create persistent wealth from the information that is copied, the recordings. A musician living a real-time career, divorced from what used to be commonplace levees like royalties or mechanicals, is still free to pursue reputation and even income (through live gigs, t-shirts, etc.), but no longer wealth. The wealth goes to the central server.

Please notice how similar music is to mortgages.

Jaron Lanier is a scientist and musician best known for his work in virtual reality research, a term he coined and popularized. His other book is You Are Not a Gadget(2010).

When a mortgage is leveraged and bundled into complex undisclosed securities by unannounced third parties over a network, then the homeowner suffers a reduced chance at access to wealth. The owner’s promise to repay the loan is copied, like the musicians’ music file, many times. So many copies of the wealth-creating promise specific to the homeowner are created that the value of the homeowner’s original copy is reduced. The copying reduces the homeowner’s long-term access to wealth.

To put it another way, the promise of the homeowner to repay the loan can only be made once, but that promise, and the risk that the loan will not be repaid, can be received innumerable times. Therefore the homeowner will end up paying for that amplified risk, somehow. It will eventually turn into higher taxes (to bail out a financial concern that is “too big to fail”), reduced property values in a neighborhood burdened by stupid mortgages, and reduced access to credit.

Access to credit becomes scarce for all but those with the absolute tip-top credit ratings once all the remote recipients of the promise to repay have amplified risk. Even the wealthiest nations can have trouble holding on to top ratings. The world of real people, as opposed to the fantasy of the “sure thing,” becomes disreputable to the point that lenders don’t want to lend anymore.

Once you see it, it’s so clear. A mortgage is similar to a music file. A securitized mortgage is similar to a pirated music file.

In either case, no immediate harm was done to the person who once upon a time stood to gain a levee benefit. After all, what has happened is just a setting of bits in someone else’s computer. Nothing but an abstract copy has been created; a silent, small change, far away. In the long term, the real people at the source are harmed, however.

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