A Good Hard Look at Downloading
Let’s start with music, because that’s the most popular thing to download. Personally, I don’t buy CDs, ever. And don’t get me started on iTunes downloads, but that won’t happen either. It doesn’t really matter why, but let’s just assume I’m either poor or cheap (or both). Because of this, no record company, artist, or distributor will ever make a cent from me. So if I were to (hypothetically) download a CD, then they haven’t lost any money. They didn’t lose any money from distribution or production. They only money that they lost was the money spent making the music, which doesn’t change at all based on my actions. So they didn’t make any money, but they didn’t lose any either. Since we’ve already accepted that I wasn’t going to buy the CD, there should be no problem with me (hypothetically) downloading anything, because I was never going to net them any money.
So far the download is neutral, no money lost or gained. But let’s take it a step further. Now let’s assume that after I have (hypothetically) downloaded the CD I share it with my friend/family member/coworker, who does buy CDs. Despite how the record companies make it sound, people who buy CDs still exist, in massive numbers. He likes the music, and he goes out and purchases the CD. Had I not (hypothetically) downloaded it, he would not have heard it, and would not have netted them the money.
If we look at it like a pyramid-scheme, I share a CD with a few friends, who share it with a few friends, who share it with a few friends, and so on. Through the power of exponents, you get to a few hundred people very quickly, some of whom will buy the CD (or future CDs) and would not have without the (illegal (and hypothetical)) act of downloading. The more obscure the band, the more pronounced this effect will be, since they won’t have national exposure. This is exactly why sites like Jamendo do so well, people love free music, bands love free exposure, and the Creative Commons just works.
The situation is different for the “big four”. They already pay for exposure, and their music is the stuff on the radio. However, they produce fewer CDs of lower quality than they ever have, which is probably the main reason they’re making less money now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose more money from lawyer’s fees than from downloading. (As a note, I’m not sure if the distribution scheme I mention below would work for music as well as TV. It very well may, in a similar way that radio works. Because I discussed it there I won’t again here.)
To sum up: the case that downloading music hurts profits is unlikely, especially when the downloader is a person who wouldn’t normally purchase CDs. Downloading increases exposure, which can only result in more profits (whether through CDs or concert tickets). As such, it’s likely that non-traditional distribution is beneficial for artists, and quite possibly for distributors.
The case for TV is different. TV (at least for broadcast) is free, but supported by advertising. Gee wiz, that sounds like something familiar on the internet. There’s no way that you could use that model to support internet distribution! It would be really difficult for gigantic companies like FOX or CBS to dedicate a few servers to shows, make them free for download without commercials, and use a model like Salon’s to support it. That’s only the exact same thing as television at over the air, it would never work! They could probably even get away with keeping the commercials in there, most people are ridiculously lazy and wouldn’t bother with cutting them out. Even if people don’t watch the commercial(s), it’s no different than going to the bathroom during a break, and just as easy. As such that’s not a real problem.
Because TV is advertising dependent, distributing it over the internet would probably increase profits, whether through P2P channels or through something like I described above. There are many people who don’t have time to watch their favorite shows anymore, and services like TiVo are expensive. Right now I don’t even own a TV. No one is making any money off of me. The very worst case scenario for the stations is that I (hypothetically) download their shows off of P2P networks and retain my interest in them, so that when I do have access to a TV I watch their channel instead of another one. Who wants to watch a plotline-dependent show that they haven’t seen in nine months?
More likely (and beneficial) scenarios include me watching the show with friends, getting them hooked on it, thus increasing the potential
To sum up: Illegal downloading probably negligibly affects television. Even if it does, the effect is likely to be positive. Not to mention that the ability to mitigate the effects and give the customer what they want while still making money is well within the content provider’s capabilities, if they wanted to do it.
Movies are a different beast still. However, they’re pretty much like music, except where exposure matters less. They’re also much more expensive to produce, and an ad-supported distribution network probably wouldn’t work as well. I’d have sympathy with Hollywood if it weren’t for the fact that they make about one good movie a year, they haven’t had an original idea in twenty, and their slow demise will almost certainly be a benefit to all of society. I won’t discuss the issue further.
I am well beyond skeptical that downloading hurts anyone. Given people’s actual behavior (as opposed to the fantasy-land where everyone who downloads a CD would have bought it) the effects will be much smaller than the $20 bajillion estimates that the RIAA throws around, and this doesn’t take into account any of the positive effects, which are hard to quantify, but extant nonetheless. (For a fortuitously timed article on this subject that just came to my attention, see here.)
Anyone interested in learning more about copyright issues should read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Professor of Law. He distributes it for free online, and (unlike me) isn’t writing based solely on his own logic. I highly recommend it.
(Final note to those feeling litigious: when I write in the first person it does not actually indicate that I have performed the act that the narrator was said to have performed. This page in no way constitutes proof that I have ever violated any law.)