Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is file sharing illegal? People seem divided

This site has the results from a recent poll. The question was whether Internet File Sharers should be held to the same scrutiny and punishment as Shoplifters.

The results are interesting. The poll shows a nearly 50-50 split (leaning slightly to the "no, they shouldn't" side) between respondents.

Granted, the poll likely took place online in a tech-savvy group, which could skew the group somewhat. I'm not terribly familiar with the community of this site, but I suspect a large proportion of browsers may be doing 'illegal file sharing' themselves.

The main problem with 'illegal file sharing' to me is that too often the definition of what is illegal is not properly defined. There is definitely the need to curb/end piracy of software/movies/music/etc. At the same time, there is almost a push by some people to use the file sharing method as a legitimate form of distribution. People use file sharing networks to share their created movies/music/software and get it into the viral network almost as a marketing schema.

There's also the argument about things that have partially entered the public domain such as things that are shown on TV or are downloadable elsewhere on the Internet. What's the difference in downloading the latest episode of your favorite TV show and calling up your obsessive neighbor who videotaped it?

The "taping" argument escalates to movies (somebody taping a show broadcast on cable) and music. In the days of cassette tapes, people swapped dubs and mix tapes like candy. The industry went so far as to create high speed tape-to-tape dubbing decks. CD burning software (and even DVD movie burning software) has continued this practice today. If the industry is so utterly against sharing movies and music with others, then why not attack the manufacturers of the hardware and software that makes such illegal activities legitimate? Why not attack the manufacturers of the DVD player that includes a DVD burner built in to make a duplicate copy of your latest new release rental from Netflix? How is that behavior different from ripping a copy of the movie to your hard drive? In each case, you've created a duplicate and in each case, it is only a matter of time before the movie is shared with friends and family.

Even without duplicating, friends will loan the original CD or DVD to each other so they can view or listen without having to purchase. Software has a "terms of use" agreement that often makes this sharing illegal, but not many people pay attention to that either and as a result, many people will loan copies of software to each other.

The main worry to consumers is that prices will increase as a result of file sharing. It's a threat that the major corporations continue to hold over our heads. In some instances, they have even acted on these threats. The problem is that these threats are a double edged sword. If the industry drives the price up too high, the file sharing could get more rampant as more and more people decide they'd rather download the file and risk a fine (which they don't see too many people getting) than pay double the cost for mediocre media (which is a whole other problem...too much of the media out there is just plain garbage and not even worth the bandwidth to share it).

The companies who try to do something about the file sharing issue often create too bold a cure. Comcast monitors bandwidth usage and will turn off (without notice) somebody they believe may be conducting illegal file sharing...which bandwidth usage may actually NOT be due to illegal file sharing. A coworker recently went over Comcast's invisible boundary (they wouldn't tell him what the red flag limit was, only that he'd passed it). He explained to them that he had been doing some major upload/download work from home to transfer large files for completely legitimate purposes. In the end, the only solution they gave was for him to stay below the limit (which they wouldn't identify) or for him to purchase a business account with a higher, set, bandwidth limit. Granted, most people in their day to day activites won't be having issues like this. At least I hope not. Still...I wonder about some of the major YouTube contributors uploading tons of videos a month...who may also be downloading/streaming tons of other videos each month...or downloading updates to their favorite online games...or legitimately downloading lots of music and movies from iTunes. Many schools will sniff your computer and boot you off the network if you even have a sharing client installed. Others are more kind and only flag you if they catch you running the client.

I agree that there is a problem. I agree that illegal file sharing is something that needs to be addressed and discussed. I think that the definition of illegal needs to be better defined and I think that the discussion needs to move from "illegal FILE sharing" to just "illegal sharing." If it's wrong for me to share my new music CD with somebody across the country, it should be just as wrong for me to share the CD with my friends and neighbors...or to pull songs off and create my own 'mix CD.'

One thing which I believe can help stem the tide of 'illegal file sharing', at least in the movie and music arena, are more 'legitimate' services like iTunes where you can download music and movies. I personally still think the price point on these services is a little too high for what they offer. If I want to purchase a movie or a complete CD, and the price point between download and physical is only a buck or two (as it usually is), I much prefer to buy the physical album or DVD so that I have the full package....art, special features, professional disk, etc. However, if I only want one or two songs from the album or am looking for something especially obscure, the Internet is the place to go.

And now I've rambled on and on.

Let me know your thoughts on file sharing. Good, bad or otherwise.

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