STONE the crows! The digital pirates have put Proudon back in business.

The nineteenth century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued property is robbery, by which he meant state sanctioned title over assets, rather than stuff we use in our houses or to make a quid.[i] Today it seems just about everybody agrees with him, what with the way people get very cross when anybody argues an individual or organisation owns the right to charge for copies of music and movies.

In a week when the argument over a carbon tax began to boil and Labor was eviscerated in the state election this may not seem to matter much, but it goes to the heart of our magic pudding public culture – where the test of a policy is not its economic impact but what we all get for free.

Except copyright owners whom many people expect to pay for our entertainment. Last week the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft announced it was appealing a Federal Court decision that ISP iiNet had no control over illegal peer to peer file sharing by its customers.[ii]

The Crows have no clue on the legal issues but the apparent community consensus that the music and movies industries have no business seeking to stop people pirating their products astonishes them.

Industry lobby groups argue piracy costs the film business in Australia $575 million with a third of adults committing “some form of theft”, which they define as “downloading, streaming, buying counterfeit, borrowing, unauthorised, burning.[iii] By 2016 8 million of us will access online content illegally at an annual cost to Australian content industries of $5.2 billion. [iv]

Critics are not convinced, suggesting the research is flawed, that people download stuff they would never buy, that the money they save on music and film is spent in other areas of the economy and that whatever rate downloading is occurring, it’s the industries’ fault for not giving the market what it wants – which apparently is everything for nothing. [v]

And there are all sorts of justifications for the piracy that is occurring, most of which are based on three assumptions. First, that “big content’, as UWS blogger Ben Eltham calls the copyright owners, is rent seeking – “no industry, let alone the foreign-dominated entertainment industry, deserves a free ride for its business model,” he writes. [vi]

Second, that pirating will not stop deter content creators. To anybody who has seen racks of illegal copies of new release films and TV series for sale in Asian bazaars, or knows people with a millennium of stolen songs on their Ipods this seems counter-intuitive. But for music at least the pirates may have a point, demonstrated by economist Joel Waldfogel’s exploration of the impact of file sharing, published in January.

It is clear to most observers that file sharing has undermined the effective copyright protection afforded to recorded music. In spite of this, the supply of recorded music appears not to have fallen off much since Napster, and there is at least suggestive evidence that independent music labels, which operate with lower breakeven thresholds, are playing an increased role in bringing new works to market.[vii]

But it is hard to see how this situation applies to the film business, where what the pirates want most is the high-cost blockbuster which makes its money from cinema seats, DVD sales, download rentals and TV rights, or to television, where hit series are easily accessed by bit torrent files.[viii]

Third, file sharing is presented as a new model for creative, industries one where the property theft that is copyright no longer applies. Matt Mason confuses the technologies that make creating and copying music, movies and games possible, with creativity itself.

Open-source technology has proved to be as – and in many cases more effective than – free-market competition or government regulation when it comes to generating money, efficiency creativity and social progress. Hip-hop was born out of a desire to improve society for a marginalised few, but because of its ability to communicate so effectively, now has the potential to improve it for the marginalised many. And just as mass culture thought it had figured out how to control and use youth cultures, they evolved again. Mass culture needs to learn from the ways youth cultures behave and think, not just use them for their good looks. [ix]

To which the Crows quote Dr Johnson – “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Piracy means writers, as well as film makers and musicians are not paid for every copy of their work. [x]

And even if they were convinced by all the arguments of new paradigms and talk of copyright as theft, the Crows still wonder whether what this will lead to is a tragedy of the digital commons. When music and movies are treated as free goods sooner or later producers will give up making them.

Adrian Cosstick argues that there is a distinction between creative commons, where art works and ideas are available to enjoy and expand and breaching copyright. People will still pay for a quality product, contrasting the pirates’ idea of, “the world’s greatest public music library” and the legitimate commercial success of iTunes, he suggests.[xi]

This may not impress ideologues who see pirating music and video as a weapon in the fight against capitalism or the freebooters who take whatever they want whenever they can. But however you cut, they are not paying people, especially artists, for their work. Money aside this is plain rude and sooner or later anybody who feels taken for granted will not bother.

Or, as another philosopher put it, in life, online or otherwise, you get what you pay for.


[i] “To satisfy the husbandman, it was sufficient to guarantee him possession of his crop; admit even that he should have been protected in his right of occupation of land, as long as he remained its cultivator. That was all that he had a right to expect; that was all that the advance of civilization demanded. But property, property! the right of escheat over lands which one neither occupies nor cultivates,—who had authority to grant it? who pretended to have it?” P J Proudhon, What is property? An inquiry into the principle of right and government,” @

[ii] Andrew Colley, “AFACT iiNet copyright case heads to Sydney High Court,” The Australian IT March 24 @ recovered on March 26, Andrew Colley and Mitchell Bingemann, “ISP iiNet beats studios in movie piracy case,” The Australian, February 4

[iii] AFACT, “Study reveals $1.37 billion loss to Australian economy from movie piracy,” February 17 @ recovered on March 26

[iv] Australian Content Industry Group, “The impact of internet piracy on the Australian economy,” @ recovered on March 26

[v] Asher Moses, “Piracy: are we being conned?” Sydney Morning Herald, March 22 @ recovered on March 25

[vi] Benjamin Eltham, “Why AFACT’s piracy statistics are junk,” February 25 @

[vii] Joel Waldfogel, “By bye Miss America Pie: The supply of new recorded music since Napster,” @

[viii] The Economist, “Ahoy there! The perils of piracy” April 29 2010 @ recovered on March 26

[ix] Matt Mason, The pirates dilemma: How hackers, punk capitalists and graffiti millionaires are remixing our cultures and changing the world (London, 2008) 232-232

[x] James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, @ recovered on March 26

[xi] Adrian Cosstick, “OK, Computer: file sharing, the music industry, and why we nee the Pirate Party”, Platform: Journal of Media and Communication, (2009) @ recovered on March 24