A recent study by Australian neuroscientists, Torrent Freak reports, asked why digital piracy elicits so little guilt for transgressors relative to physical theft. As TF put it, "To most it just doesn't 'feel' the same."
The researchers from the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences first confirmed, via questionnaire, that study participants were more likely to steal intangible goods vs tangible ones. Next, they scanned the brains of subjects while asking them to imagine tangible and intangible goods, respectively, finding that intangible goods caused far greater relative brain activity. In other words, it was more difficult of a task to conceive of these intangible goods in the first place.
Next, participants were asked to imagine stealing these intangible and tangible goods, which registered marked activity in the area of the brain associated with "moral sensitivity" — and this area was far more active for tangible goods. After the study, subjects reported far greater feelings of guilt for the tangible items (a 6 on a 1-7 scale of guilt) versus intangible ones (a 4 on the same scale). TF reports:
"Social Neuroscience lab head Dr Pascal Molenberghs says that this suggests that people have less problem breaking laws covering intangible items since they experience more difficulties imagining them so their brains feel less guilty when they 'steal' them."
This result echoes a quote in Freeloading from neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, who told The Atlantic in 2010, "The nature of Intellectual Property makes it hard to maintain the social and empathic constraints that keep us from taking each other's things."
What is the proper response to this "difficulty" in imagining and accepting the value of digital goods? One option, and I believe the most common by far, is to not trouble yourself at all and go on pirating, stream ripping etc. more or less anonymously. Another is to take the minimal leap in thought and imagination to understand the nature of creative careers and the value of respecting the choices of creators enough to not heedlessly pirate. A third option is to construct an elaborate defense mechanism against accepting the rather obvious truth that digital piracy is a choice to violate the rights of others, in this case creatives...and that's when you get the comment section at Torrent Freak, which I highly recommend, oozing with "copying isn't theft" desperation.
I agree that pirating a few albums isn't quite the same as fleeing a store with a clattering stack of CDs under your arm, so I don't love the word "theft" when it comes to digital. However, something is surely being stolen from creative people when "intangible" goods are taken: their choices.
And its the erosion of choice, from the out-of-control black market of piracy, that creates a vicious cycle, leading artists to accept the piddling payouts from streaming services, for example. It's a process of lowering standards.
So it's "hard" to get people to understand the nature of "intangible" goods, intellectual property, etc. OK. And maybe you can't expect people to care enough about it to read a book or a few articles about it to settle their minds. Well, then what do we do?
We understand that it if protecting the choices of artists actually matters then there need to be some signals and penalties along the digital road for those who require a bit of education. When I was in Spain recently to promote the spanish release of Freeloading, I found myself talking a lot about small fines for repeat infringers. Like a speeding ticket. Not a $3,000 lawsuit or anything that could ruin peoples lives, but enough to incentivize legal consumption and to communicate, "this matters." There are other methods: watermarking/DRM, filtering, domain blocking... hey, whatever works! But I think small fines, administered by the very ISPs who have profited hundreds of millions if not billions off of piracy over the years (it juiced up demand for their services), looks like a piece of whatever "effective enforcement" actually looks like.
Or so I imagine.
Thanks to Rob Levine for asking me to moderate the "Conversation with Creators" panel last April at the OnCopyright 2014 conference in NYC. After working with Marc Ribot and Tift Merritt on the Content Creators Coalition Artists' Pay For Radio Play event in February, it was a pleasure to step back and give them the "Freeloading treatment" as it were. In a little over 30 mins, and despite some rambling on my part, we were able to cover an awful lot of ground. Even though the subject of the conversation is a relative bummer, Marc and Tift shared their experiences with humor, soul and intelligence. I remain a believer in the idea that if music fans--at least--can stop and listen to stories like theirs the debate over commercial piracy and artists' rights will continue to progress.
But I also understand now, as opposed to when I wrote Freeloading, that talk isn't enough. To achieve lasting change, there is a need to organize and channel the resources of artists to combat the more culturally self-destructive effects that have blown in with digitization. Again, much ground is covered here, but at the end we discuss the prospects of the Content Creators Coalition. Check it out.
Planning, organizing emcee'ing the Artists' Pay For Radio Play Rally and Concert with Marc Ribot was an insane, frenetic honor. The event was a huge success made possible by the contributions and efforts of many. Exciting to think about where the Content Creators Coalition can go from here.
Below is a smattering of the coverage received before and after the event.
My post on censorship elicited a bit of discussion today, which reminded me of this video of Anil Dash speaking at the Berkman Center on the rhetoric and aftermath of the SOPA protests (thanks to Richard Bennett for the link). Very refreshing comments to hear from the tech/openness community. I take the idealism of many open web folks at face value. I just hope that, going forward, more idealists will recognize the fact that "openness" should not excuse the mass exploitation of working artists. If you want rights for yourself, you also need to acknowledge the legitimate rights of others. From the video above (start at 38:20):
That willingness to pat ourselves on the back uncritically. Say, "Look we won! We beat the evil movie industry!" It's like, "These are our allies!" These were early free speech advocates, right--the creative industries, in music and movies--that we should identify with them as artists. And that we're vilifying them, seems like, somebody's getting over a pretty good trick on us. Our biggest enemies are people who support creative industries? That can't be the case. And again that comes from this arrogance of, "Well they're dinosaurs. They're a legacy industry..." I know people in this room tend to be a little more evolved in their thinking, but the people that we count on to rally behind our efforts--they don't see us being publicly critical of one another or critical of ourselves. And I think that's one of the reasons it didn't work (the open web).