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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

stealing things « Previous | |Next »
March 27, 2008

Apparently ISP Exetel agreed to take the big stick to customers they catch illegally downloading content off the net. Offenders will get warning notices but if they're caught doing it again they'll be restricted to email "until they resolve the issue with the issuer of the infringement notice". Is this approach likely to be any more successful than the last one which targeted distributors? Probably not.

Self-described fan Professor Henry Jenkins has been following arguments from both sides of the debate over content control since typewriter times and argues this kind of move is a mistake on the corporations' part. In this (very long) essay he argues that the corporation's charges of theft are equally matched by consumer accusations of exploitation, and it's about time media producers took a good look at the thing from the consumer point of view (and vice versa). For many and varied reasons the bigger hammer solutions to their copyright and profit guarding problems do them more harm than good.

The entertainment media landscape is changing and the big end of town is refusing to catch up, regardless of how much it costs them. Nielson Online's study of consumer generated media in Australian and New Zealand has consumers happily entertaining themselves with content they create and circulate for free. The masses of material posted on YouTube represents a different kind of economy to the one which accumulated wealth and power to Time Warner.

You'd think that somewhere in these enormous hubs of corporatised creativity there'd be someone sufficiently imaginative to come up with better solutions than bullying their own audience. The big producers don't like people 'stealing' their property in the form of illegal downloads, and they also don't like people 'stealing' their property and mashing it up into something else, which adds an interesting extenstion to the problem. In the former case the consumer argument goes 'you've been ripping us off for years', but in the latter case, 'and spending our money to make stuff we don't particularly like'.

One of Jenkins' suggestions is that big producers incorporate consumer generated media into their own range, which sounds like a reasonable solution. Especially when cheap technology gives so many access to the means of production. If they could get that right, reduce their own production costs and make use of already existing distribution channels, they could go some way towards recovering the loss from illegal downloads.

They could punish illegal downloaders by forcing them to dance to the music they pinch on camera, and distribute that as entertainment. It couldn't be any worse than what's already on television.


| Posted by Lyn at 4:46 PM | | Comments (7)
Comments

Comments

Lyn,
I like Jenkins' idea of a moral economy

"Moral economy" refers to the social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions which create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange. The moral economy which governed old media companies has broken down and there are conflicting expectations about what new relationships should look like. The risks for companies are high, since alienated consumers have other options for accessing media content. The risks for consumers are equally high, since legal sanctions can stifle the emerging participatory culture.

Nice idea. Presumably the participatory culture is the old folk culture in a digital age, where a digitally enabled and media literate population has taken tools once the reserve of professional media producers and made reworking text, photographs, video, and music a routine practice.These works are then uploaded onto blogs, Flickr or YouTube.

We are no longer a passive audience. However, as a photographer on Flickr I'm not sure that I am part of an autonomous or resistant subculture in a visual world.

Following the logic of Exetel, service stations could refuse to serve some motorists for traffic violations. "I saw you make an illegal U turn so no petrol for you."

People just won't use that service station or ISP, given the common perception amongst music consumers that the Big Music Inc is exploiting consumers over the price of CD's.

Silly business move by Exetel. Who are they?

Gary,
There are some interesting ideas getting around about the economy of what Jenkins calls convergence culture and participation culture. People put enormous time and effort into producing stuff, then give it away. What? How can that be? What do they get out of it?

Jenkins' book Fans, Bloggers and Gamers is an interesting read. The different fan groups he looks at all make huge investments that make no business sense. Producers and consumers are like different species.

The reference to folk culture is interesting. Jenkins calls the appropriation and reworking of content 'poaching'. John Quiggin wrote about economics blogging and an 'economy of esteem'. Bourdieu would have said social or cultural capital. Corporate logic doesn't get the point.

Rumpole,
Good analogy, but perhaps it's unwise to say these things out loud and give people ideas. Although, when it comes to the net any move to restrict access just represents a challenge. We seem to have learned nothing about prohibition.

Nan,
It's a very stupid business move, especially given the stiff competition in the market. I have no idea who they are, but it wouldn't be surprising if they were part of a media corporation.

Eric S Raymond, a pioneer of the open source software movement, wrote a highly influential essay which surfaced in May 1997, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he compared the "cathedral" method of IP development - teams of hierarchic, highly organised workers (e.g. Microsoft) with the "bazaar" method - folks who did what they felt like, contributing to a common cause (e.g. Linux).

In his chapter, "The Social Context of Open-Source Software" he wrote:

The Linux world behaves in many respects like a free market or an ecology, a collection of selfish agents attempting to maximize utility which in the process produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved. Here, then, is the place to seek the ``principle of understanding''.

The ``utility function'' Linux hackers are maximizing is not classically economic, but is the intangible of their own ego satisfaction and reputation among other hackers. (One may call their motivation ``altruistic'', but this ignores the fact that altruism is itself a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist). Voluntary cultures that work this way are not actually uncommon; one other in which I have long participated is science fiction fandom, which unlike hackerdom has long explicitly recognized ``egoboo'' (ego-boosting, or the enhancement of one's reputation among other fans) as the basic drive behind volunteer activity.

Linus, by successfully positioning himself as the gatekeeper of a project in which the development is mostly done by others, and nurturing interest in the project until it became self-sustaining, has shown an acute grasp of Kropotkin's ``principle of shared understanding''. This quasi-economic view of the Linux world enables us to see how that understanding is applied.

We may view Linus's method as a way to create an efficient market in ``egoboo''—to connect the selfishness of individual hackers as firmly as possible to difficult ends that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation. With the fetchmail project I have shown (albeit on a smaller scale) that his methods can be duplicated with good results. Perhaps I have even done it a bit more consciously and systematically than he.

Many people (especially those who politically distrust free markets) would expect a culture of self-directed egoists to be fragmented, territorial, wasteful, secretive, and hostile. But this expectation is clearly falsified by (to give just one example) the stunning variety, quality, and depth of Linux documentation. It is a hallowed given that programmers hate documenting; how is it, then, that Linux hackers generate so much documentation? Evidently Linux's free market in egoboo works better to produce virtuous, other-directed behavior than the massively-funded documentation shops of commercial software producers.

http://catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/

Mike,
As I understand it this is pretty much the case with most creative enterprises. Controlled or managed creativity is an oxymoron. Creative people left to their own devices on a single project will compete in all aspects including, as you point out, documentation because there's no critic quite as threatening as the legitimate competition.

The hallowed givens seem to come from managerialism in a rationalist framework who don't have the same goals as the participants like hackers, where the goal of defeating the obstacle has nothing to do with the money economy and everything to do with Quiggin's economy of esteem. A specialist is a specialist along the lines of the artist starving to death in the name of art. Or Paul Erdos who couldn't even give a crap about his own competition.

Thank you for the refs.