Ever since we began to build houses out of mud and stone, we Homo Sapiens have been concerned with questions about property. Property comes in many forms. Physical objects, animals, ideas, and even people can be property, although the last of those four is something nobody really wants to talk about or acknowledge in modern times. But what is important here is the manner in which property is exchanged. There are a few ways in which property is exchanged, and in order to understand the issue at hand, we need to go through them to some degree.
The first means of exchange is by consent. An exchange trading one thing for another. This is the means by which most property is exchanged nowadays, and probably has been since before recorded history. In the very early stages, one piece of property was exchanged for another, a system called bartering. The problem with bartering is basically that finding the goods that both or all sides of the transaction want is a resource-expensive and labour-intensive affair. If a transaction is between two people, then it is easy enough to keep the transaction costs down. But when third, fourth, or fiftieth and beyond parties become involved as a necessity, the cost of bartering as a system becomes more than the cost of simply producing the goods yourself. Which is what makes money such an awesome invention. Instead of endlessly hunting for compatible trades, money allows us to barter between ourselves and anywhere else that our money is legal tender, all through the exchange of a simple token or writ. So in essence, money is the commonly-used form of exchange by consent that we have today.
Exchange by stealth, or theft to call a spade a spade, also occurs in the modern world, even if it is frowned upon. When another party, be it an individual or a group, takes something that belongs to you without your consent, the property has essentially changed hands. You can go to the justice system and ask for the property to be taken back on your behalf, and you usually will get a sympathetic response to this, but until the property is determined to be rightfully yours and returned to you, it has essentially changed hands. This is why, in a real world, property is controlled through the use or threat of force.
You will notice that I did not refer to theft as exchange by force. This is for a reason. I am not an economics person, and am only really referring to this subject to further my main point. So I will be succinct about this. On a national or international level, land is property, and such property is only controlled through the use or threat of force. This is why laws like Native Title or such always make me laugh. Even if we handed the natives, as we will call them here to simplify the discussion, their lands “back” with a bow on them, they would not be able to muster the force to keep them. Such lands would be ripe for any faction who decides they want that land for themselves to take. And with resources shrinking in the face of a growing population, that is a matter of when, not if.
Now, you have already seen me write things about what democracy is, so I will keep this succinct. Idiots on the Internet will tell you that democracy means no ownership, and that everything is “free”. Sorry, children, but it does not work that way in reality. Everything we do, from breathing to eating to having sex, involves an expenditure of resources. And for the last half-century or so, the amount of resources per person in this world has been declining.
Now, do not get me wrong. If there really were such a thing as a free lunch, I would be very happy for people to have them. Especially when those people happen to be financially and socially disadvantaged. But unfortunately the most absolute truth of consumption-based existence in a world of limited resources is that if the user is not paying for what they use, someone else is. Now, when that user is at a disadvantage, I personally do not mind paying part of the cost for them to use what they need or even want. Some do, but since those people are usually claiming a far greater share of the resources than they are entitled to anyway, nobody really cares what they think.
The basic problem here is that everything we make, do, or consume costs resources. I cannot stress that enough. If you think nobody is hurt by the taking of literature, music, or images in electronic format without paying for them, think again. And contrary to what you might think, the people who suffer the most from this are not greedy, faceless corporations who deserve to be stolen from, anyway. The people who suffer the most from you taking these things without paying for them happen to be working stiffs just like you. Granted, you might have reason to think their work is more glamorous or enjoyable than yours. But having made films and other creative works in the past, I will let you in on a little secret. That picture you have of visual artists, musicians, or authors as glamorous, rich “stars” is an illusion created by marketeers. It only has a basis in fact for a small fragment of each industry, and even then the reality is a lot uglier than the illusion. Actors who command fees in the tens of millions of dollars to appear in films account for less than one percent of their profession in total. And as actors like the late Heath Ledger demonstrate, the price of getting there can take a few multi-million-dollar fees to adjust to. The stakes for other creative professions such as writing or music are similar, at least where reward against effort and risk are concerned.
The fallacy of the whole “everything should be free” idea in the electronic world is even more apparent when comparisons are made to other aspects of the “real” world. Imagine that you are a factory worker dealing with powders and pastes that have the potential to irritate your skin or even kill you in some cases if they are spilled. All you really want is to have enough money at the end of the day to make the effort worthwhile. A little to feed your family, a little to keep you and your family amused, and a little to put away for that day you need to stop working, or even for a rainy day. But your boss suddenly gets it into his head that your labours should be free since, certain conditions aside, he can replace you at will. Would you accept such nonsense? Of course not. In fact, the whole concept of unionisation, contrary to what conservatives and anti-labour political efforts will tell you, was started as a response to such nonsense. Since even artists like Michael Jackson depend (or depended in his case) on what filters back to them from concert tickets or record sales, the idea that everything, or even anything, should be free is bollocks. How would you like it if you rose to the top of your profession only to be told everything must be free, so you do not get squat in spite of how much effort you put in? Or worse yet, be denied even the slightest chance to get to the top because of same? It speaks to the selfishness and ignorance of the Everything Must Be Free crowd that these are alien concepts to them.
Does this mean that the record companies, film studios, or publishing houses are right to charge such exorbitant and ever-increasing amounts for their varying products? Pig’s arse. In order to clarify what I mean here, I will limit my explanations to the music industry. The principles are more or less the same for the other industries. But the music industry, especially at the level of the ever-shrinking number of major record labels, is by far the worst example. Without the artist, the labels would not have a product to sell in the first place. In fact, pretty much all record companies have an entire department devoted to acquiring new talent. In independent companies like Nuclear Blast, the department usually consists of the staff who do other jobs such as sales, advertising, and decision-making. But in big companies like Sony, they have an entire department that does nothing but.
The deals that record companies offer new and upcoming artists, to put it nicely, stink like a bad day in Rwanda. This is standard practice, and is unlikely to change as long as an entire youth culture is based on the idea that it is somehow okay to collect music without paying for it exists. But the essential point here is that the first thing artists usually do when they achieve some level of success is to renegotiate the terms of their record deals. Horror stories of bands that have a number one hit but are sleeping on the floor of their collective mothers’ lounge rooms because they still “owe” the record company a hundred thou are very far from unheard of. But here is the thing. When one takes an artist’s recordings without paying for them, the artist takes the brunt of the hurt. The record company has tens, hundreds, even thousands of artists on their books that they can spread costs and deductions like this over. The artist, on the other hand, generally only has their own record sales, concert tickets, and merchandising to fall back on.
The effect that this is having on art as a whole is becoming quite noticeable. Can you name one artist as game-changing as Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Elvis, or their ilk, that emerged during the past ten or even twenty years? I cannot remember hearing of any. And that is because in a market where there is no regulation to say that a company cannot steal from its artists, and no regulation to prevent competition from becoming destructive, there is nothing to make a company focus on innovating rather than simply treading water and finding a good place in a competitor’s back to stick a knife.
An example of backstabbing in the unregulated marketplace would be Apple. Apart from the fact that Apple seems to think nothing of taking another company’s product (the MP3 compression algorithm) and using it for their own profit, Apple hates independent music companies. Really, really hates them. There are a number of reasons for this, but the basic problem is that independent companies survive largely by offering the consumer the kind of product that cannot be easily obtained anywhere else. Apple does not want to deal with fringe elements, however. The idea that bands like Made Out Of Babies, or even Black Sabbath for that matter, are allowed to exist offends the powers that be within Apple. Apple want “happy happy happy, everybody’s happy” shit to be the sum total of the marketplace. They might see this as a goal. I see it as hell. So at present, the people seen as the future are in fact the worst possible thing for us all. If Apple becomes the new RIAA, say goodbye to anything unusual or remotely interesting in the future music marketplace. In an unregulated marketplace, the lowest common denominator rules, and whilst Apple make beautiful software products, their understanding of variation in just about any aspect of the Human species is nearly non-existent.
So, in a nutshell, if we are to move towards this bold new Jetsons-like future in which everything is distributed electronically rather than as a physical product, we have some big problems to overcome. And at present, those problems are in the form of the biggest companies to be pushing that future at us. We very badly need to take the basic infrastructure back away from private hands and put it back in the hands of the people in general.
If you have read this far, thank you for “listening”.
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