Column: Wiley's Follies
Piracy, Plato, And Publishing
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 22:02
Gyges’ ring, as presented in Plato’s Republic, is a mythical artifact capable of making man invisible. In consequence, whoever wears the ring, ridden of fear of punishment, may act freely against established moral convention. From these metaphorical circumstances, there comes a great question: if no one’s watching, is man by natural an immoral being?
The Internet is perhaps the nearest humanity has come to imitating the implications of invisibility. From maintaining friendships to exchanging goods and services, people have come to favor this attractive invisibility for many of their most important interactions. The Internet has accordingly been praised for its convenience and privacy, but all too commonly, the technocentric glosses over the disturbing moral implications of online exchanges.
The piracy of movies, television, and music is the realization of the moral duplicity The Republic hinted at thousands of years ago. But rather than burdening my purpose by restating the overstated contentions with piracy, I hope to qualify the issue objectively, and take time to assess properly why the “powers that be” are effectively powerless in sentencing the 21st century buccaneer to the gallows.
Much to his dismay, the common car thief has yet to master the art of stealing cars over the Internet. Accordingly, the online pirate is effective only in his plunder of abstract goods. And since they’re stealing inspiration rather than sustenance, the demographic of such thieves is decidedly broader. These people are generally not in desperate straits—they are not stealing music to feed their children or to prevent the foreclosure of their homes.
Interestingly enough, books would seem to fall under the category of abstract goods, and yet, publishers have hardly felt a pinch of the pirate’s inexorable plundering force. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact they never distributed their livelihood to the masses by way of compact disc, in good faith of humanity’s intentions. But I believe another important story of the relative success of publishers better answers our question.
Imagine paying $15 to spend two hours of your Friday night having books read to you in a crowded duplex. The absurdity of this could serve as a useful critique of the movie industry—for our purposes, we should understand it as the distinction of books as a generally intimate medium. Books provide few immediate sensations. Instead, we are educated through books. The intellectual connection we have with them cannot be equated to the sensory connection we have with movies, television, and music. Books are our teachers. Movies, television, and music are our friends. And while paying for education is reasonable, paying for friendship is laughable.
However, it’s worth mentioning books. By means of the public library, books are free and have historically been this way, but here’s the kicker: people have consistently chosen to pay for them. Inversely in the music industry, record companies insist on people paying for music, and in turn, people have consistently chosen not to.
There is a noble stupidity to legislation that seeks to effectively regulate anonymous exchanges capable of spanning the entire world in a matter of seconds. We erect picket fences along the highway, in hopes of stopping the frequent avalanches of the unstable mountain it was built upon. My advice is to instead relocate the highway or level the mountain. Online pirates would be no more a threat than the old ladies who pocket the sugar packets in diners if the respective content could legally be accessed for free. Though at face hardly a lucrative solution, we have already seen Pandora, Spotify, and Netflix successfully monetize cheap or free content. But if the mountain is too costly to level, the path by which artists make their money can be moved. It’s a gloomy forecast, but if the artist’s livelihood is bleeding through one particular appendage, perhaps it’s time to tie the tourniquet.
Returning to the original question, does online piracy prove the immoral nature of man? To this, I answer no, not conclusively at least. Perhaps man has simply become a bit overzealous in his entitlement, or perhaps he is in truth devoid of morality. But I believe he is young. I believe we naively expect the laws of physical commerce can perfectly be applied to an immaterial state. We are like a child losing a favorite toy into the ocean. We cannot understand why the ocean took it, and we are farther yet from realizing that it’s not the ocean’s fault. So instead we cry, because we placed our toy in the ocean, and in the ocean, now it’s gone.