Wed 7 Jun 2006
A few days ago media reported about the closure of ThePiarateBay.org, a Swedish torrent site. It was not only one of the biggest torrent sites on the net, but also one known for ridiculing law threats received from American companies. Its operators believed that their site is legal under the Swedish law and laughed openly at letters coming from US lawyers. So, when the Swedish police raided their hosting center and removed all servers found there (including some belonging to other businesses and organizations) media articles were full of gleeful statements [PDF] from MPAA and RIAA.
But I think they should restrain their delight. Some very interesting developments are occurring in Sweden now. Not only is ThePirateBay.org operational again (this time from servers in Netherlands) – Swedes took to the streets to support it and protest the raid! Only few English language sources report about it – fewer than about the original raid – but according to the ones I’ve found several hundreds took part in two separate demonstrations in Stockholm and Göteborg, Sweden largest cities. Demonstrators demanded that seized servers be returned to their owners and criminal investigation against them be dropped.
Now, this is a very interesting development. I think it is the first case when those believing file sharing should be legalized openly manifest their support for a site that helps them do it. In this way their point of view, quite different from the one disseminated by the corporate lawyers working for the media companies, enters the public debate. All efforts to criminalize file sharing are endangered if people are allowed to shun hypocrisy and tell openly that they don’t see anything criminal in copying files from one computer to another. And in a democracy it is not possible to prosecute acts that majority sees as normal, justified and not harmful. Also on the international arena it will be very hard to pressure a democratic, free country to accept other country’s laws without having a backlash from the community.
The events in Sweden and their possible outcome show the political dimension of a simple, technical truth so well expressed by well known computer security expert, Bruce Schneier: „Trying to make bits uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet.“.
It’s a perfect analogy, since there is a way to make water seem dry – freeze it. The only society in which copyright could function the way media corporations would want it to is a totalitarian regime. Unless the state will monitor the net as scrupulously as the Chinese Internet Police and jail people for filesharing they will do it. And in a democratic society it’s not possible to have hefty punishments for something almost everyone does or did. So either we’ll see current hypocrisy continuing (with everybody pretending they don’t do P2P but statistics showing it is 70-80% of the traffic) or the situation will evolve towards a more sensible solution.
And any search for such a solution has to begin with the recognition that the current system of patents and copyrights just plainly doesn’t apply to or work with the reality of the networked world. Ability to patent trivial inventions, ability to prevent anyone from citing anyone else, sing someone’s else’s songs and the mentality that requires a dime for each word read or beat heard are not an achievement but an aberration of the human development. Sharing ideas, sharing texts and music is something that occurred through history, undoubtedly helping the progress of civilizations. Wikipedia is a most recent example of what can be achieved through free cooperation and sharing.
On the other hand, one has to recognize that the effort and talent of writers and musicians has to be rewarded monetarily for them to be able to support themselves and their families. And ingenuity of the inventors should be rewarded even more since it provides much more than a mere entertainment. Therefore any sensible solution must take those rights into account as well. However, I don’t think it should take into account the big media corporations, which produce an endless stream of mediocre music and movies driven by marketing research and advanced by marketing spending.
I think such a solution must be based on recognizing the contribution of the authors but prohibiting things like long-term contracts binding artists to media conglomerates or advance-buying of rights for works not yet written. Also, dramatic shortening of time period during which a work of art is protected in some way (or an invention patentable) is essential. In other words, a good solution should protect the public and the authors but cut out the parasites. And it should take into account the fact, that sharing of texts and music is not theft but normality, reality of the networked, 21st century world.
I hope that we’ll get nearer such a solution as younger generations, for whom filesharing is almost natural, will get politically active. Recent events in Sweden show that this time might come sooner than I expected.