On File and Music “Sharing”

(Note: if at any point in this article I allude to having engaged in illegal activity, it is both purely hypothetical and a dirty lie)

I have to admit that at one time, I hid behind the rationalization that sharing files and songs didn’t hurt anyone, as long as I wouldn’t have paid money for them in the first place.  I thought myself very smart in this observation.  But, there are many fine lines here.

Let me announce that I am fully aware of the disparity between a typical supply-demand marketplace and the way digital media works.  It is true that the physical act of making a copy of software costs only a negligible amount of money.  However, it is simply false and shortsighted to extrapolate from this that no damage is done in the process.

I knew what I was doing when I “copied” software.  I was having financial problems, wouldn’t be in a position to make a purchase for quite some time, and I wanted some things to make my life a bit better.  So, I let my selfishness get the better of me and I “found” some software that did indeed improve the quality of my idle time incrementally.  I allowed myself to be convinced that this situation in total could cause no harm to the companies responsible for producing the works. I could forgive myself for these acts now, especially as I have gone back and purchased (or made plans to purchase) most of the software I “evaluated”.  But that’s really a further rationalization, just another trick to avoid thinking deeper.  So here are some deeper thoughts on the issue.

First of all, I may be paying for software now, but I didn’t pay for it when it was first released.  That meant companies who devoted thousands of hours of productive time and paying salaries and licenses and all those costs of doing business didn’t get what they expected when they expected it.  This is a subtle point:  it’s the expectations that I am most concerned with here, because without being able to expect people to legally pay for what you produce, you will most likely not be fully motivated to produce the finest product available and release it to the market.

Now, there may be those of you who are altruistic or otherwise a member of the “free culture movement” and are willing to spend five years of your own time to produce something worth selling and then give it away for nothing.  If that is your wish, feel free to do so, as long as you do not infringe on the right of others to make a profit.  But, I will maintain the argument that a group of similar people can be motivated to do the same thing more efficiently, productively and effectively by giving them deadlines and promise of living a better life.

Such groups will form larger groups to manage themselves and the work they do better, and before anyone knows it, they will be a “big corporation”.  Any one of us could be part or owner of such a corporation; all you need is the opportunity and you will soon find that you need the same basic things as every other company in the world, and will be not only compelled but hoping to grow as large as next larger corporation in your industry.

That is the nature of the effects of competition in the marketplace; products get better over time and companies get bigger as projects get more ambitious.  That is why free markets improve quality of offerings at a fantastic pace.  Our own system here in the US is arguably the most successful example of this fact in the world.

So, when I think of a corporation, I don’t think of a machine.  I think of a group of people, which does tend to act in ways distinctly different than a single person.  Nevertheless though, a group of people is still just people, and their actions are based on the sum total of all the desires each person has been able or willing to express inside that group, with a more limited sense of liability.  They are people at the heart and it’s only logical to accept that any of us would act similarly in their respective shoes.

But I digress.  So how much did I actually “hurt” the makers of certain software?  First, I paid them late if I paid them at all.  Second, I most likely did not pay what was considered full price due to the length of time since release.  Third, I may have proliferated the idea that my actions were appropriate, which though harmless they might have been, could still be interpreted differently or abused in concept.  Ultimately then, I did them harm by affecting the original investment they made under a reasonable expectation of profit based on the total number of possible buyers.  It does not matter whether I am in bad times or not; the harm is still done to them.  If a recession hits (again) and half of their expected buyers become thieves after the product was completed, the company stands to be in dire straights.

The simple fact is, we live in a world of “haves” and “have-nots”.  Some can afford to buy food and some cannot; which class one falls in is determined only slightly less by luck than by effort.  If someone says an item is a product and it has a cost of money, then that is that item’s value to that person.  Likewise with an entire market: if virtually the entire world says an item costs $10, then that item is worth $10 universally as far as you are concerned.  If you cannot afford it, you will need to look to charity.  Even basic needs like food and medicine require a trade in value of some sort.  It doesn’t matter what you want or how badly you need something; if you cannot make the trade in value, you go without, and if you take the item regardless, you are stealing.  It would be wonderful if software companies could offer charitable copies of their software to the needy, but management of such a process is not feasible except on a large scale (as with Microsoft offering less expensive versions of software to developing countries).

So I stole.  The honorably way to have stolen, if it can be said to exist, would have been to admit I was stealing, and make every effort to repay the lost value as soon as possible, while trying to limit anyone else’s knowledge of the act in order to minimize the damage.  Not ideal for anyone, but that would have been most appropriate, if I was determined to go forward with it.  I regret not having been diligent enough to do this at least.

It can be said I have new perspective now after having created several pieces of software on my own, both for personal and professional reasons.  I suppose it would be difficult for anyone who has not created in an art medium to understand what it is like, but everyone should be able to relate to the idea that no one wants to be forgotten; we all want some form of credit, and it so happens that most people in the world happily translate “credit” to mean “money”.

I realize there are many cases where free software has been produced and has been quite good.  In fact I can immediately think of two types of software that have largely been superceded by superior open-source or free alternatives: CD/DVD authoring software and compression software (Zip files).  However, in each case, these alternatives were developed after years of refinement and development in the original product, compounded by the reality that each year makes software development more accessible and efficient.  No matter how you look at it, profiteering organizations paved the way in sweat and blood by using aggressive business and meritocracy.  They have a shared goal that motivates them very strongly, and it is these goals that create the magnetism that forms companies.  Without the attraction of group benefit, any alliance deteriorates.

What would happen to the economy if everyone spent a great deal of time producing something for free and gave it away freely?  I can tell you easily that it would be a disaster.  Potential working hours would decrease, fewer taxes would be collected, and quality of product would universally suffer due to lack of strong competition.  Finding a job or work that pays you enough to stay alive would eventually become impossible, because more companies would lose all potential for profit and would disintegrate.  The poor would become more destitute as their skills would be relegated from minimum-wage to wage-less.  Ironically enough, this would hamper free trade with other countries and would thus have negative effects on the sharing of culture.  This is just a demonstration of a larger rule in economics: if no money changes hands, everyone loses.  GDP goes down and everything snowballs from there.  This is why we stimulate our economy in times of recession.

So friend, I leave you with some final considerations that should keep you thinking for a while.  How exactly is making a pirated copy harmless?  How can any group, clan, corporation, sect, government, or any form of organization survive without a shared goal of reward?  Why would you ever think it was a good thing not to charge money for your efforts?

Greed, like many other attractive and simplistic urges, can be abused and can wreck families.  But, this is not sufficient to make it a source of evil.  The truth is, you are doing all of us a favor when you ask for money for your work.  Get out there and make something great to sell us, and we’ll be happy to buy it.

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