Streaming services have been gradually increasing in popularity as the cost of data decreases. In Australia, for example, one can obtain a connection providing unlimited data for $60 per month. One of the major arguments regarding ‘piracy’ is its convenience. Offer a way of getting content more conveniently than piracy – make it available in less than five clicks, guaranteed quality, legally and easily accessible on multiple devices at no extra cost – and piracy suddenly dries up. Who wants to spend time fiddling with torrents, hoping that a lone seeder holds on long enough for you to get your copy? As such, it has been posited that the best way to solve the “piracy” issue is to offer a cheap, convenient, guaranteed service.
However, streaming services are not the alternative to sharing.
The true power of P2P file-sharing is in the ability to remix. The media shared can, to an extent, be deconstructed and used to create new content. YouTube puts this capability on display: fan-made video clips that combine original footage with pre-recorded music, or original music that samples cultural snippets (sound-bites for example) with pre-existing footage. The ‘remix culture’ is growing rapidly as more and more people appropriate content outside the notions of copyright. Sharing and remixing is nullifying the perceived notion of content ownership. There is only content, and what you can do with it.
The shift we are seeing, and it is one that has been emerging over the past decade, is from the passive consumer to the active producer. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author claims that the author’s role in the meaning of content is being diminished, as meaning, significance and value is increasingly determined by the audience. The new era into which we are moving involves consumers taking the material that exists and making changes to produce new derivative works. Culture is created, duplicated, withdrawn, modified and put back. This process is endless, and it’s how our world changes.
Hollywood knows – and this is something I will cover in a later essay – that they cannot possibly recoup their ‘losses’ from ‘piracy’. There is simply too much content out there for everyone to purchase. With copyright being constantly extended, more and more content is expected to be bought. At $10 a DVD, how many people are going to buy one hundred DVDs per year? One thousand DVDs? The funds simply aren’t available for the majority to consume the vast amount of content in existence, but they consume what they can.
A new report by the Swiss government argues that unauthorized file sharing is not a significant problem, and that existing Swiss law—which allows for downloading copyrighted content for personal use—is sufficient to protect copyright holders. It considers and rejects three proposed changes: a French-style “three strikes” law, Internet filtering, and a mandatory collective licensing regime that would impose a fee on all Internet users that allowed unlimited file-sharing.
Drawing on statistics from the Netherlands, which is similar to Switzerland in terms of demographics, Internet infrastructure, and copyright law, the report estimates that a third of those over the age of 15 in Switzerland share copyrighted works without permission. That may be because, despite the best efforts of copyright holders and government officials, the majority of Swiss Internet users can’t distinguish between legitimate and illegal sources for copyrighted material.
Yet the report argues that the spread of file-sharing is no great cause for concern. It argues that consumers spend a roughly constant share of their disposable income on entertainment expenses. Money saved on buying CDs and DVDs are instead spent on “concerts, movies, and merchandising.”
– Timothy B. Lee, ARS Technica.
The MPAA and RIAA must acknowledge this. Surely they cannot be so ignorant as to rubbish these studies? Assuming that they do accept this, why do they still insist that every copy be strictly accounted for? The answer, I will venture, is “control”. They can control what you watch, how you watch it, and how you interact with it, by enforcing their copyright monopoly strictly.
Streaming is merely a continuation of this. You return to being a mere observer. There is no opportunity for you to remix the content. It is static. Fixed. Controlled. Don’t even think. Just watch it, hear it, shut up. You can’t make it better. You can’t mould it into a different shape.
The fact that the 4 major phonographic companies have taken a participation in Spotify…while allowing it to provide access to their catalog, should act as a warning. This behavior can be seen as an effort to retain, in this new channel, the same strong control over which works reach the attention of the public that they have in classical publishing. Furthermore, if streaming becomes the dominant form of access to works, individuals would be turned into passive receivers.
– Philippe Aigrain, Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age, p. 46.
Streaming may improve access, but it is merely a compromise. Free access to culture, with revenue being generated through advertising, is not a substitute for ‘piracy’. The issue is not in how people access information, but in how that access allows them to interact with the content. Interaction is a two-way street. We must never forfeit our ability to interact with media, even if that means rejecting services that allow free or cheap access. Streaming is great for passive consumption, and it should work alongside peer-to-peer sharing, not replace it.
Free content is great – modifiable cultural building blocks are better.