Piracy and all that

Tim O’Reilly, publisher of fine technical books with animals on the covers, dropped a mind-bomb a couple days ago on the subject of piracy and file-sharing. Some very well thought-out counter-arguments to typical Hollywood positions.

He does say one thing that doesn’t quite ring true:

The music and film industries like to suggest that file sharing networks will destroy their industries.

Those who make this argument completely fail to understand the nature of publishing. Publishing is not a role that will be undone by any new technology, since its existence is mandated by mathematics. Millions of buyers and millions of sellers cannot find one another without one or more middlemen who, like a kind of step-down transformer, segment the market into more manageable pieces. In fact, there is usually a rich ecology of middlemen. Publishers aggregate authors for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. Wholesalers aggregate small publishers for retailers and small retailers for publishers. Specialty distributors find ways into non-standard channels.

My favorite file-sharing site was Audio Galaxy. It has almost no files to share anymore, thanks to the MPAA, but it still does have the feature that made it better than, say, Napster: it apparently uses some kind of agent technology to present “other people who liked this also liked these” recommendations. This was great–I discovered some new music that way, music I simply wouldn’t have found otherwise. With a reasonably fast connection, it was like audible websurfing.

Audio Galaxy could be considered an aggregator, but I wouldn’t call it a publisher. In a world of unfettered P2P, people really could be self-publishers, and something like Audio Galaxy could thrive. And I wonder if some kind of completely decentralized “taste-sharing” mechanism could be worked out through something akin to FOAF (the “friend of a friend” vocabulary).

But unfettered P2P is a pipe dream. Hollywood wants complete control over the terms under which we enjoy their product (and you damn well better enjoy it if you know what’s good for you). Disney has copyright extended everytime the mouse is on the verge of entering the public domain, and a TV exec says that skipping commercials is theft (I wonder if simply watching a show where you are a member of the wrong demographic is also theft?). A bill has been introduced to Congress that would explicitly permit Hollywood to hack into your PC and poke around for pirated content (and indemnify them in case they, oh, accidentally trashed your hard drive in the process). And so on.

Hollywood also would probably like it if people like me, who are creating media outside the system, would stop competing with them (if you call this competition). But I can picture the bones of a science-fiction story along the the lines of Farenheit 451, where ownership of industry media has become so onerous that people create a complete samizdat network of old public-domain and homemade entertainments.