Generosity and file-sharing

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Tuesday, Nov 22, 2005

File-sharers are generally regarded as crafty theives when the media reports on them (when they are not lamenting the “war agianst Christmas” and other such critical breaking news), but I’m always stunned by how generous people can be with their time and effort and bandwidth (and, in some cases, alas, with other people’s intellectual property). Think of all the time it must take to rip and upload the CDs out there on the newsgroups, day after day after day. Why do they bother? Surely it can’t merely be the hacker/anarchist thrill of subverting governing morms of private property. There’s authentic altruism mixed in there somewhere too. The Internet, in thiese cases, serves to aggregate small bursts of good intentions, like a thousand points of light—Bush Sr. would be proud. And consider this site, which is home to rips of obscure vinyl salvaged from thrift stores and out-of-the-way record shops. And then consider all the links this page can direct you to, many offering a wealth of MP3s gratis. I’m never sure if it’s a good idea to publicize these things—too much attention could probably overwhlem these small kindnesses, which are distributed all over the Internet if you have the patience to search for them. these things exist happily at the margins, operating independently of the dominant profit-driven models for accomplishing things, for achieving a level of impact. If enough attention was sent their way, they would become more prominent and intolerable to the “powers that be,” and more likely to be squelched or assimiliated. But then, what I’m doing here is just another small gesture as well, subsumed by the exponentially expanding amount of information out there.


By the way, here is a review of the results of a study of the impact of file-sharing on the music industry. Twenty to forty percent of the decline in sales may be linked to file-sharing, but file-sharing leads to more sales of the bottom three quarters of artists in poularity, while adversely affecting only the quarter most popular. In other words, file-sharing has a leveling effect, tending to lessen the leverage of the major labels and their strategy of hyping a few superstars to maximize profits with two or three megahit albums. Is this good for the music consumer? It depends on whether you think people need megastars, to give them the vicarious thrill of seeming to participate in a trend as big as the world, or whether people are suffering under the yoke of the bad music being forced on them. (I think a bad album by someone hugely famous is more interesting than a good album by an unheralded artist—not better, not more pleasant to listen to, just more interesting in the sense of being relevant culturally.) The studies also determined (how I’m not sure, but the raw material is there for follow-up) that “file-sharing on average yields a gain to society three times the loss to the music industry in lost sales.”

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