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intellectual property

Picture this: All your miserable, sorry life, you’ve been a city bus driver. As jobs go, it could be worse. You go to the bus depot every morning, you start on your route, and you ferry thousands of people a week from point A to point B. To work, toward home, to any number of nameless errands you, being the bus driver, will never know. They get on the bus, they pay their fare or flash their cards, and eventually, they get off somewhere along the way. All you do is drive the bus. Whatever mischief your passengers get into – or out of – is their business, and nothing to do with you.

You just drive the bus.

One day, a bunch of guys in suspiciously cheap rain coats show up during your lunch hour. There you are, munching down on a PBJ and halfway through the sports pages, when these bozos show up and flatly state you are under arrest as being an accessory to a crime, because one afternoon, some nameless faceless passengers got on your bus, got off somewhere, and then proceeded to murder some hapless homebody who had the bad idea to open the door. However, since you took them to where they went to do their evil deed, you are, in effect, as guilty as they are.

True story.

Or how about another scenario.

It just so happens you are a fiendish, fabulous cook. You know everything there is to know about cooking with liquid nitrogen. Friends beg for invitations to your dinner parties, because they just know they’ll be scraping their tastebuds off your dining room table, and it will take them weeks to rearrange their mental furniture afterward. So – you put your money where your mouth is. The KitchenAid mixer, the Le Cornet custom-built six-burner stove, the cabinets full of Le Creuset pots and pans. The Alessi zester. The state of the art Zwilling knives, lovingly stored in a drawer wrapped in individual suede bags. There’s no sense in turning your friends into slavering, drooling dogs unless you have the stuff to do it with, right?

Some dreary, rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon. while you’re slaving away at the salt mines that finance your kitchen, and everyone else in your neighborhood were away at their salt mines, someone breaks into your house, absconds with your beloved kitchen cutlery, and then butchers his way through another part of town. Somehow, those knives are traced back to you. And somehow, you, too, have been charged with murder – for owning the knives that someone stole and murdered someone else with, someone in no way connected to you, which makes it all the more likely, right?

Another true story.

Today, a Swedish court sentenced the four founding members of The Pirate Bay (henceforth referred to as TPB) to one year in prison and a collective fine of 3.54 million US dollars to be paid to the music and recording industries. Organizations such as IFPI are claiming a victory, and John Kennedy, the chairman, is claiming that it sends a “strong” message to potential illegal file sharers, as well as a message of hope to the poor musicians, film makers et alia who create the creative content those file sharers download.

That’s right. Those poor musicians, whose only source of sustenance is those iffy CD sales and iTunes downloads. The starving directors and producers of all those blockbuster movies, who only have DVD sales to pay their ex-wives’ alimony with.

Yep. And I am Queen Marie of Roumania.

Now, the guys at TPB, I’ll have you know, do nothing at all illegal. There’s no copy-righted material on their servers at all. That’s right. Nothing. The Pirate Bay is a server stuffed with links to where you can find, on any given day, a gargantuan cornucopia of basically whatever digital material you want. Software. Songs. Entire discographies. Movies. TV-shows. E-books and pdf-files of real books. Much of what you can find available is in a handy, DRM-free format you can put into your iPod, your computer, or you can burn it onto a DVD and watch it on your TV.

Presuming of course, that, say, that version of “The Dark Knight” really IS what Christopher Nolan hit the jackpot with last year, and not some spurious remake of “Debbie Does Dallas”. Because with TPB, you never know. They just put up the links, man. What people do with them is their business.

But IFPI needed a scapegoat or four. They needed to make an example. They needed to state their case, that downloading and file-sharing copyrighted material is ILLEGAL, that is intellectual theft, that all those file sharers and BitTorrent users do is make it that much harder for musicians, say, to create music the rest of the world would want to listen to.

But they blithely forget one thing. No matter how successful a musician you are, the record company makes at least ten times as much off you. CDs are not how you get rich anymore. Musicians make their money off touring and merchandising, and in order to do that, they need a calling card – the CD. The Myspace and Facebook pages. The YouTube videos and online exposure in e-zines and fan sites and their own web sites. All to pull in the paying customers at live venues who get to hear the Real McCoy, courtesy of the CD they’re promoting.

Ah. Yes. Movies. I read somewhere that last year’s most illegally downloaded movie was “Dark Knight”. At one point, it was being downloaded at the rate of 15000 downloads – a day. Mind you, it also managed to make a good 1.5 billion dollars at the box office – that is, good. old-fashioned people who paid to see it at the movie theater.

Obviously, the movie business is in deep, deep trouble if they can only manage a measly 1.5 billion at the box office. It’s all TPB’s fault, anyway.

Actually, no. It’s the fault of the music and movie industries for not paying attention when their boat came in. They thought, back in 2001, that they had dealt a crushing blow to file sharing when they managed to close Napster.

They didn’t. They just made more people aware of it, what it was, how to do it, and what to use. The general populace is not stupid. They figured it out. Since then, file sharing has grown exponentially. However, we still have blockbuster movies that rake in the profits with a pitchfork. We still have the Billboard 100. People still have accounts with iTunes.

We just have file sharing, too.

I am a strong believer in supporting the creative community. There are many, many bands whose CDs I will happily buy, whose concerts I will be delighted to frequent, whose cheesy t-shirts I will be thrilled to wear – and pay through the nose for. There are. likewise, many more bands I would never ever have known about if not for a friend who made himself a criminal so I could enjoy Viking war songs sung in Old Norse. That does not make it right, but it paves the way for more discoveries – and concert tickets, because my curiosity is killing me.

If TPB closes – unlikely, even given the circumstances, it will not mean the death of file sharing. It might mean the birth of any number of “private”, membership only sites – and there are already quite a few – that do the exact same thing as TPB – you just have to be a member to enjoy the benefits. This means, too, that you usually have an obligation to share what you get.

In December last year, a Danish court ordered all Danish ISPs to block access to TPB. It’s back to the bus driver analogy again. If you’re the bus driver, you can’t – and shouldn’t – be held accountable for what your passengers do once they get off the bus. And once again, that court had decided without taking the techies into account. Because even with a limited knowledge of your operating system and about five minutes of your time, you can still bypass your ISP – and head for TPB, or anywhere else.

If IFPI really wanted to combat the problem of illegal file sharing, then they should consider, just as Apple did with iTunes, giving their users an experience they will not get on TPB, or Mininova, or all those other torrent search engines. Interviews, backstage access contests, special-edition whatever it takes.

Instead, they chose to persecute the messengers. What about Google? Google technology can be used to search for torrent files, too. Why aren’t they suing Google? Because Google can afford better lawyers?

All in all, the case against The Pirate Bay has done one thing, more than anything. If you happened to live under a rock in the outer reaches of the Gobi desert these past eight years, and you have now managed to emerge behind a computer at an internet cafe in downtown Ulan Baator, you now know all about the Pirate Bay. And now you’re morbidly curious as to what you can find.

As for the musicians – they now have many outlets, and a lot of them do not involve a record company at all. They can put up their songs on their MySpace page, they can record a video and put it up on YouTube, they can create an online fan base all on their own – and they can reap the rewards for themselves.

In the bad old days, before Usenet, before anything worth having, in other words, there were bootleg albums. LPs made live, off the audience audio or the soundboards, in some cases, that were circulated among the cognoscenti as a dirty lille secret. Some of those bootlegs are highly collectible today. In effect, however, it was every bit as much theft of intellectual property as any mp3 you can find on TPB.

That didn’t deter anyone back then. It won’t deter them now.

And if I have a CD of a band I love so much I want to hear them in my car, I can make a copy of the CD I already bought once. A criminal act. I can also download the album – well, I did buy it once, ya know! – from a torrent site, transfer it to my iPod, and play it till the cows come home. That’s still criminal.

If I have a legal version of a software program, all is well until I try to install it on a newer computer, in which case, all copyright protection hell breaks loose and I am required to buy – for an utterly outrageous sum of money – another copy. Or – again – I can simply download a cracked version, install it and hey presto! And on two computers! Wowee!

What do those copyright hounds think people are going to do?

What do you think they should do?

(Image courtesy of : http://www.tonyynot.com/)

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