I think the current hysteria over free downloads of intellectual property is getting a little out of hand. Whatever the morality of it, as perceived by present-day standards, it is clearly quite disingenuous to equate copying intellectual property with stealing material property. If I steal your vehicle I prevent you from using it. If I copy your pop song I do not. There is a significant difference. The argument is then presented that I am stealing from you the money that I should have paid you for it. But if I would not buy it anyway, due to greed, laziness or penury, then you are not being deprived of that theoretical sum of money.
There is increasing evidence that many who download intellectual property without paying for it then go on to buy associated merchandise – tee-shirts, higher quality recordings, live shows, other works by that author and so on. The likelihood of vicious lawsuits, disconnection from the internet and public floggings encouraging people to do this is probably fairly low. The offer of free digital downloads is more likely to create a warm, let-me-get-my-wallet glow in a prospective buyer’s heart.
I recently described the attitude of the music business to free downloaders as being like a guerilla war, in which the most basic golden rule is to ‘win the hearts and minds of the people’ – because most of the people are not their enemies. The music moguls have failed catastrophically to observe this, and will suffer greatly for it. The book world should try to avoid doing the same.
It is beginning to seem to me that the very concept of paying for many immaterial objects is going to vanish. They will become loss leaders, adverts, tasters, encouragement to buy the associated material possessions such as tee-shirts, posters, paper books, branded MP3 players and so on. My neighbour writes and illustrates childrens’ books and she tells me that most of her income derives not from her books directly but from lectures, school visits and such. I believe the same is true of successful musicians, with live shows and merchandise.
In the meantime there will be much heartache as we all try to cope with the tremendous changes going on, not only the material, practical ones, but also the immaterial, moral ones. For morality, surely, is simply about not harming others. And if a free download does not harm the author then it cannot be immoral. If it can be made to benefit the author then it will benefit everyone.
The Digital Revolution has released a magical genie from her bottle and we must not try to push her back in just because she challenges our cosy, established concepts of the acceptable norm.
I posted this as a comment on Nathan Bransford’s blog