Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Online Piracy is a Good Thing

Matt Yglesias takes on SOPA and PIPA:
There’s no evidence that the United States is currently suffering from an excessive amount of online piracy, and there is ample reason to believe that a non-zero level of copyright infringement is socially beneficial. . . . any effort to actually eliminate it would be a cure much worse than the disease. 
Much of the debate about SOPA and PIPA has thus far centered around the entertainment industry’s absurdly inflated claims about the economic harm of copyright infringement. When making these calculations, intellectual property owners tend to assume that every unauthorized download represents a lost sale. This is clearly false. Often people copy a file illegally precisely because they’re unwilling to pay the market price. Were unauthorized copying not an option, they would simply not watch the movie or listen to the album.

Critics of industry estimates have repeatedly made this point and argued against the inflated figures used by SOPA and Protect IP boosters. But an equally large problem is the failure to consider the benefits to illegal downloading. . . .

The benefits of forcing copyright holders to compete with free-but-illegal downloads are considerable. I am not, personally, in the habit of infringing on copyrights (though I will cop to some book lending and the fact that my fiancée and I, like any sensible couple, share Netflix and Hulu subscriptions) but recently have found myself firing up again. Why? Because the BBC in its infinite wisdom decided to start airing Season 2 of its excellent program Sherlock in the United Kingdom without making it available at any price to Americans. That’s dumb, but until relatively recently it was a universal problem.  It used to be that studios and labels didn’t make their wares available to people willing to pay for them. That created an underground market for pirated TV shows and music. The pirated market, in turn, pressured the entertainment industry to create legal options such as iTunes and Hulu. The illegal competition is a valuable consumer pressure on the industry.
This last I think is very important. For decades the music industry forced people to buy whole albums or cds to get any single song, and it was only illegal downloading that forced them to allow us to buy single songs at a reasonable price.

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