Wednesday, March 23, 2011
who's failing whom?
Last week, crusading tech journalist Jesse Brown published a column with Toronto Life magazine in which he boasted about being a "thief." Brown accesses creative content (television shows and movies) by doing an end run around the copyright holders of that content, despite the fact that much of what he wants to see is perfectly available to him in Canada -- 30 Rock, one of the examples he uses in his article is even available free at the CityTV website.
What cheap, piratical satisfaction Brown gets from stealing copyrighted material is a mystery to me, but his column helped to refocus the debate about whether or not copyright infringement is theft. I think most reasonable people would say it is theft (and sleep well at night knowing Margaret Atwood agrees with us); free culture folks say it, technically, isn't theft... except one of free culture's most vocal defenders, Jesse Brown, proudly calls it theft and vows to keep doing it.
Crusading free culture academic, Michael Geist, joined the twitter conversation around Brown's article only to accuse Brown's detractors of being corporate astroturfers. I made a direct appeal to the good doctor to spell out how he feels about Brown's illegal downloading behaviours. Geist declined to answer despite numerous prompts. Does the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law agree with his friend Jesse Brown that what he boasts of doing is theft, and does he approve of it? We may never know.
But today we did learn that - theft or not - Dr. Geist does not believe Brown's behaviour is particularly Brown's fault. According to Geist, piracy is not a legal failure; it's a market failure. We shouldn't blame Brown for stealing 30 Rock. We should blame 30 Rock for not creating a market that would make itself more available to Brown (let's just ignore that whole free-at-the-CityTV-website detail).
If we follow Geist's argument, any time the market does provide the content in a simple and affordable and convenient way, there will be no large-scale pirating of that material. The folks at the New York Times better hope so, because the tech world has already cracked their paywall (even before the official launch) and is gleefully letting everyone else know how to get Times content without paying for it.
Sure, the Times is the newspaper of record for much of the English speaking world, it has some of the best writers on staff and in print, it's maybe the most recognizable and valuable media brand on the planet, and it's been providing hassle-free online content as long as most folks have been reading news online. Sure, their paywall design is relatively unobstructive, inviting, sharing, and affordable. Sure, their product is, without question, worth the price of a couple pints of beer per month. All that being true and undisputed, I think we can still expect the New York Times to be blamed by Geist and his free culture followers for failing to provide a reasonable market to media consumers and therefore causing its own piracy headaches.
(logo courtesy The New York Times)