Filesharing, P2P, Limewire, eDonkey, Kazaa. In the minds of some, these are all the same thing: a convenient method by which files may be located and downloaded. In the minds of others, it’s something different: a convenient method by which unauthorized copies of files may be located and downloaded. As with most things, which definition you embrace depends upon your point of view.

As technology marches on, the ability to make near identical copies of things and share them with others becomes as easy as exceeding the speed limit on a long, lonely stretch of country road. Computers, scanners, software, DVD/CD burners, broadband connections to the Internet all are wonderful technologies that make duplication and distibution simple and convenient. And the easier and more convenient it is to do something, the more often and likely people are to do it. (That’s one reason iTunes is so popular, and people are willing to pay $6 for a gallon of milk at the corner stop-and-rob.)

Sure, we’ve always had the ability to make copies of the written word (I’m sure if the archeologists would have continued to dig in the Tel el Amarna area they’d have found tablets of cuneiform that represented illicit copies of the tablets they originally found.) In fact, Jon Racherbaumer used to have a publication that was propagated via xerography. Wait, allow me to be more clear: Jon used to have a publication that was specifically designed to be copied — the others were copied anyway. But you’d be hardpressed to argue against the fact that today it’s easier than ever before.

Some people equate P2P (or peer-to-peer) with “illegal” in the same incorrect way they equate “MP3” with illegal activity. You can use an automobile to get you from point A to point B, or you can use it for target practice on the squirrels that cross the road. Guns don’t kill people, rappers do. (HAHAHA. Just checking if you’re still reading.) In the end, it’s the user who decides whether or not to use the car legally. MP3 is just a file format. P2P is just a technology. It’s what people do with the technology that brings us to this topic.

How does any of this impact the world of magic and mentalism? Glad you asked.

There are members of the magic and mentalism world — and you’ve no doubt run into one or two of them — who get their blood pressure up whenever the subject of file trading comes up. For them, it is a mortal sin to make copies of the latest PDF download and share it with your friends. In their opinion, that’s stealing.

On the other hand, there are members of the magic and mentalism community who equate sharing a PDF with sharing a book. Or going to the library and borrowing a book off the shelf (or, these days, a CD or DVD.) That’s been going on for ages, so where’s the sudden, new harm when, instead of a book, it’s a PDF or DVD?

Chances are pretty good that you have in your own collection xerographed, unauthorized copies of booklets or lecture notes that you acquired accidentally simply by buying things used on eBay or private sales. I don’t know about you, but I tend to be trusting of other people. As a result, I’ve ended up with copies. When possible, I’ve replaced the copies with the genuine article. (More on that later.) Used magic book dealers probably have the more colorful stories to tell as they tend to buy entire collections from widows.

But this isn’t about accidentally acquiring unauthorized copies. This is about knowingly accepting unauthorized copies of books, booklets, lecture notes, PDFs, CDs and DVDs. Is that wrong — morally, legally, neither, both?

At the heart of this is intellectual property — the currency that’s built much of the advanced world. Ideas, clever thinking, solutions to seemingly insolvable problems, information — these all fall into the category of intellectual property. Note the second word in that phrase: property. Property insinuates ownership. The U.S. Copyright Office acknowledges the value in intellectual property. So does the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. Lest you complain that I am being too USA-centric, there’s the World Intellectual Property Organization and a wonderful UK government-backed site to visit, among many you can Google for yourself.

The truth is out there but for some people, as Col. Jessep suggested, “You can’t handle the truth.”

It’s been my experience that there haven’t been many debates about filesharing. Oh, there’s been a lot of talk but that’s mostly people talking around each other, not having a debate. A debate allows for the possibility that either side may concede points to the other. Largely, that’s not going to happen with this issue. Both sides are four-square certain they are right, and that’s that.

While it’s unlikely one side is totally correct and the other totally wrong, would you agree that one side is likely to be mostly correct? And you know what that suggests for the other side. If you approach this subject from the standpoint that you believe there’s nothing wrong with filesharing, you’re going to pick and choose your arguments to support your position to the exclusion of anything else, regardless the merits.. For most people — and clearly for most people arguing this issue — that’s going to make it awfully hard to reason out the opposing viewpoint. You may as well just save everyone the time and state categorically, “Because I want to.” and leave it at that.

Here are some of the more popular pro-filesharing arguments:

1. “Everyone does it. (Therefore no one should be prosecuted.)” The short answer is heard in your mother’s voice from when you were in your single-digit years: If little Johnny jumps off a bridge, are you going to jump to?

The longer answer is, everyone is not doing it. Even if most people are doing it, it’s still against the law.

2. “It’s not stealing because the (intellectual property) owner hasn’t actually lost anything. It’s just a digital copy.” This argument confuses digital bits with real value, which is the information. A PDF is just a format in which the information is stored and conveyed; it is not the information itself. When you buy a music CD for $15, you aren’t purchasing a piece of plastic which cost the label less than a dollar to manufacture. You are purchasing what’s pressed into the CD plastic, the music. If you think all you’re purchasing is the plastic, you can buy lots and lots of blank CDs for a lot less than $15 per.

If, instead of buying the PDF (or CD or DVD or whatever) you obtain an unauthorized copy, you have prevented the owner from realizing income he is due. So yes, he has been deprived of something. What word would you use to describe that? (No, tough isn’t the right answer.)

3. “The owner hasn’t really lost a sale because I wouldn’t have bought it anyway.” So, why did you want a copy? If you weren’t going to buy it then surely you saw no value in it. And if you saw no value, why did you want a copy of it to begin with? What’s left is the truth that you do see value in it but didn’t want to pay for it. I believe the technical term used here is stealing.

4. “Knowledge wants to be free.” Knowledge, like your dead goldfish, doesn’t have feelings and doesn’t want anything. But if feelings and wants matter to you, why not consider the feelings of the property owners who don’t want their stuff traded?

5. “Well, yes, I do see the value in it, but I don’t think it’s worth what the owner is asking.” In that case, you do what decent people do in that situation: you don’t purcahse it, and you don’t steal it either. I was in best Buy the other day and saw a beautiful plasma screen television on display. I didn’t think it was worth $6,000, but I still wanted one. Regardless, I didn’t steal it.

In a free market society, supply and demand play a tug of war with perception of value. There are lots of retail products that were introduced at a price higher than a buyer’s perception of its value. Few items were sold. As a result, the seller adjusted the price downward to come closer to the buyers’ perceived value. When those two kiss, a sale is made.

6. “But I’m just a poor highschool/college/unemployed person. I can’t aford to buy it.” Well, there’s this thing called getting a job and saving your money that’s been working for generations of people wanting to buy things they cannot currently afford. Try it out; I’ll bet it works for you, too.

7. “I’m not sure I think the PDF is worth the money. Filesharing allows me to try it before I buy it. If I like it, I’ll pay for it.” Ah yes, the pre-marital sex argument applied to filesharing. This is a good argument so long as the property owner condones it. There’s a sub-world of software called shareware (not to be confused with crippleware) which allows this very thing.

But the point of copyright is the third syllable: right. The owner has the right to decide how his property is conveyed. And if he states his wish is that those who want the PDF must pay for it, it is wrong for you to change the rules for him. If you want that kind of a deal, start your own country.

Want to know if the PDF is worthwhile? Ask others who’ve already purchased it. This is 2005; please don’t pretend you know how to ferret out a PDF copy of STUNNERS! Plus! but don’t know how to find people and ask questions about its value.

8. “Well, I want it. I don’t respect the rights of the intellectual property owner. I can download it for free. So I will.” At least you’re being honest about stealing.

When all rationalizations have been exhausted and found wanting, what’s left is the stark truth in the law: unauthorized filesharing is illegal. So, the only argument left is to claim the law is over-reaching/wrong/stupid/etc. and, therefore, should be ignored. You know, civil disobedience. Fine. Join that group. But I’d like to remind you that those engaging in civil disobedience are often thrown in jail. And after spending some quality time in the pokey, some few may actually still believe in the cause celebre. (I’m speaking of the USA here. If you try this in another country…well, I hope your will is up to date.)

I’ve saved the most ignorant position for last:

There are some people who take the position that technology is what it is, people are who they are, and there’s nothing to stop this from taking place. I think that’s an incredibly stupid way to look at the situation. Well, why stop at unauthorized filesharing? Why not apply that to people who drive too fast? Or fail to stop at stop signs? Or pay child support? Since everyone needs money, why not just apply that “logic” to bank robbers? Just let everyone do whaever they want to do, when they want to do it. (I believe I covered this point yesterday.)

In fact, why not just abolish all laws since some people just won’t abide by them? (See where it gets stupid?)

The fallacy in this argument is the idea that you can completely stop people from engaging in certain behavior. I think a reasonable, rational person would agree that’s not possible. But that’s not what the RIAA, MPAA and other organizations expect to happen.

Laws don’t just pop up on the landscape like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Laws, by and large, address a situation in which people cannot be consistently counted upon to behave reasonably and respectfully towards the rights of others. Laws do not stop people from carrying out certain behaviors; they provide punishment for engaging in them. It’s the stick part of the proverbial carrot and stick. There’s a distinction worth noting.

Laws against driving above the posted speed limit cannot stop people from exceeding the speed limit. Proof of that is the fact that people continue to speed. But the law provides a penalty for being convicted of breaking the limit, though, and it’s the pain associated with the penalty that modifies the behavior of most people most of the time.

There are laws against copyright violations and penalties involved with being convicted. With the ability to more conveniently make unauthorized copies of intellectual property came additional laws to deal with that. Now, in addition to civil liabilities, there are criminal liabilities. In other words, the penalties are inflicting a greater level of pain. So long as the laws are enforced and the penalties levelled, the issue of piracy has a chance of being mitigated.

Taking the position that there’s nothing that can be done is sticking your head in the sand. (Or some rear-facing orifice.) There are, indeed, things that can be done. And I participate in that something by reporting piracy when I find it. Sometimes I’ll go further and help identify the pirate. I am an intellectual property owner, both from creating it myself and by acquiring it from others, and I am dead serious about protecting that property from unauthorized copying.

But let’s forget the law for just a moment and consider another aspect of this issue.

There’s a phrase that’s often been used to describe the magic retail industry: cottage industry. Small industries are particularly susceptible to the damages done from intellectual property theft. There’s just not a lot of money involved individually even if the aggregate amount approaches the GNP of small countries.

By and large, magic inventors aren’t getting rich selling their tricks and books. By and large, they aren’t providing a full-time income from it. But it is their income, and they are entitled to it.

A recent argument suggests that, given the “obscene” markup from manufacturer to retailer, piracy is less egregious. That’s the same impotent argument used in trying to rationalize filesharing unauthorized music files: the artist is making a tiny percentage of the retail money, it’s those bastard music labels you’re stealing from. Well, that fails to take into account the magic inventors and manufacturers — like the music artists — voluntarily enter into an agreement for distribution. If they’ve agreed to terms, you can disagree with the terms but it’s none of your beeswax to argue and change via filesharing.

If you are a decent human being and someone with integrity, it is axiomatic that you’ll respect the rights of others. Situational ethics is as much an oxymoron as is “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly.” Like being pregnant, either you are (a person of integrity) or you aren’t.

So. Are you a person of integrity?

2 thoughts on “Share and share alike.

  1. John,

    Nice article!

    I really think there are a couple of things standing in the way of wide compliance and a return to “integrity”. I’ll plead guilty to generally grabbing a cracked or pirate version of a program before I buy it and no longer make apologies. I can’t tell you how many times I said, “boy, I’m sure glad I didn’t buy that hunk of junk”, as I was removing it from my system. I can give many examples, but the most recent version of Quicken is prime – they dropped support for qif files in nothing but a greedy grab to license a newer format.

    I’ve got dozens and dozens of shareware programs that have been dropped by the authors – programs that I paid for and was promised long term support – I’m just screwed. What incentive is there to “do the right thing” going forward? Harsh, I realize, but reality. Obviously there’s a chicken/egg thing going on here, but those of us who have played by the rules are getting a little tired of getting hosed. At least, I am!

    The next item is that wretched DMCA. I’m also damn tired of out “representatives” being totally owned by special interests and producing absurd laws like this. It just makes me want to fight back and say “screw you Congress and your rich buddies”.

    I’m no kid – much closer to Social Security than anything else – A lifelong conservative that has grown tired of buying more and more Vaseline so corporate America, businesses and the government can ram another one up my backside.

    Take Care…..

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