Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial by Jason Riley on the controversy over peer-to-peer file sharing (like everything at the Journal it’s behind a paywall):
The industry has every right to continue this behavior; downloading the new Harry Potter movie or Black Eyed Peas CD tracks without paying for them should satisfy any definition of intellectual-property theft. The more interesting question is whether litigation is the best long-term strategy for combating digital piracy.
He closes the piece with a couple of quotes by yours truly:
The lesson music and movie lobbyists take from their Grokster victory is to stay the course. But Tim Lee, a technology and intellectual-property expert at the Show Me Institute in St. Louis, says that suing tech companies and music fans ultimately is a fool’s errand. “I don’t think they [the entertainment industry executives] fully grasp the size of the challenge they face,” he says. “It will be an arms race. P2P networks will improve. The recording industry will find a new way to catch people, and P2P networks will find better ways to avoid getting caught.”
The fundamental problem, says Mr. Lee, is that the Internet itself is a peer-to-peer network. If two willing people want to exchange files, you’re never going to be able to limit their ability to do so in a nation of 290 million people. Besides, you wouldn’t have time to sue them all even if you could catch them.
The copyright laws we live by today were written to go after commercial piracy. They are based on the idea that you can use control of the ability to make copies as a basis on which to remunerate content providers. No one envisioned a time when we would all be in possession of computers that can make copies as freely and easily as we now can.
Moreover, the copyright system is based on moral precepts that most people today accept. But will future generations raised with P2P technologies see piracy differently? “If I were a recording industry executive,” says Mr. Lee, “I would be looking very hard at business models that embrace P2P technology, not looking to lawyers to thwart it.”
I should mention that I’m nowhere close to having a viable alternative business plan to offer. And in the short run, I think the lawsuits might actually be an effective tactic, as it probably does have some deterrent effect. But it’s not a good long-term strategy.
One place to start, though, would be to seriously re-think their approach to copy protection. I’ve argued before that DRM technologies hamstring their paying customers while doing little or nothing to deter piracy. That’s certainly won’t stop piracy in its tracks, but it’ll at least give legitimate customers one fewer excuse to become pirates. I pitched this idea to Mr. Riley in our interview but it seems he wasn’t sufficiently impressed to include it.