Sweden is at it again. The nation made international news twice this February: Once by refusing appeals on the Pirate Bay case, and then again for effectively shutting down the second largest illegal file-sharing site on its shores, while barely lifting a finger.
Recent developments in Sweden, Holland, and across the globe seem to fly in the face of one of the loudest arguments we’ve heard from big technology companies regarding the protection of artists’ rights. Their old idea that “it’s just too hard to police content on the web” had never sat with me very well to begin with. (From what I’ve seen, policing crime on the streets isn’t exactly a cakewalk, but we try to do that anyway.) But now because of Sweden, there’s an additional, potentially more powerful argument against the technologists’ claim. It turns out that, while challenging, it may not be impossible to enforce artists’ rights on the web after all.
So far, the Swedes seemed to have proved you can do a lot with just a little bit of sensible enforcement. The numbers show that when the Swedish government started its new copyright enforcement campaign in 2009, sales of recorded music immediately shot up by 80% in Sweden’s digital market and by 10% in its physical market. And, instead of taking the RIAA’s misguided and reprehensible approach of slapping everyday Americans with multi-million dollar lawsuits, the Swedes have opted for a more sensible strategy: levying small, reasonable fines against repeat offenders.
The emerging truth is that as technology and web-literacy improve, we have more ability than ever to crack down on illegal file-sharing while providing great legal alternatives that respect the rights of artists and creative professionals.
Remember Megaupload? They made gigantic heap-loads of money by actively encouraging the distribution of stolen work. Now they’re gone, and all that remains are the revolting images of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom in a swimming-pool-sized bubblebath, looking a whole lot like the villain from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
In the wake of the Megaupload closure, other major online lockers have begun policing their content much more seriously. We don’t really need more digital copy protection in the files themselves. The real problem is not individual file-swapping, but the wholesale distributors of stolen work, like Pirate Bay, Demonoid and Megaupload. Like the Napsters and Limewires of yesteryear, they earn real money by facilitating large-scale theft. And lots of it.
Similar arguments have been made against YouTube, and although those arguments can be excessive, they’re also not too far off the mark. Thanks to the quirks of the DMCA act, I can put up your music on YouTube and use it to generate traffic and revenue for myself and YouTube for years before you realize it and send a takedown notice. When YouTube and I finally do get that takedown notice, YouTube would not owe you any back royalties for the traffic and revenue we generated with your work.
Can you imagine us letting the old record labels get away with something like that? If Universal stole one of your songs, put it on a CD and got caught, would they get away with saying “Oops, sorry, got me! We just won’t press any more of those CDs. Here’s your check for $0.”? The answer is no, but we let Google get away with it every day.
Web companies complain that it would be too hard to effectively police their content, but they underestimate themselves. Google is one of the most profitable companies in the known universe, and they’ve hired large numbers of some of the most brilliant minds of a generation.
If we pass the laws and start the enforcement that creates a real incentive, you’d be amazed at how quickly such a brilliant company can figure out how to police its own content effectively and efficiently. If they have to hire an additional team of real live people to vet their content, then great. We are in a recession here. Maybe they can hire some of the people they put out of work at the old record companies. After all, the big web technology companies are the publishers, the record labels and the distributors of today all rolled into one — And they have the revenue to match.
Early signs suggest that popular opinion is just beginning to turn away from the giant tech companies and to favor individual creators and curators of great work. Big companies on both sides of the issue are sometimes successful in clouding the debate, but the truth remains that artists’ rights are and always will be as progressive of an issue as free speech is.
Ultimately, this is a battle that has to be fought on both sides: By putting up real and powerful roadblocks to piracy, and by creating new delivery products that satisfy consumer demand while giving artists a fair deal. Opting for only one approach or the other just won’t cut it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.