Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution
Subject:   About time someone made this point...
Date:   2002-12-12 16:47:03
From:   anonymous2
(Re-posted from an email I sent earlier to Mr. O'Reilly...)

Dear Mr. O'Reilly,

I am writing to thank you for your recent piece about Online Distribution. I have enjoyed your essays and other publications in the past (I frequently mention that bizarre interview you did
with Q. Todd "Never trust a man who doesn't part his name in the middle" Dickinson, then head of the USPTO, in which he basically denied that the PTO had any problems handling emerging Internet-
related issues due to lack of examiners' numbers and technical literacy), and I liked this article very much.

In today's piece, you mention a particular idea that I've been expressing to colleagues for quite some time when discussing similar issues. Unfortunately, this idea virtually never gets
broadly heard.

Specifically, I have always had a problem with the **AA's concerted PR campaign designed to equate copyright infringement with theft, and to characterize (sometimes subtly, usually not) anyone who has the temerity to disagree as an evil pirate/academician/l337_h4xx0r/anti-business zealot. You never hear about U.S. vs. Dowling, for
example (relevant parts quoted in a related case, U.S. vs. LaMacchia, transcript at, in which Justice Blackmun forcefully argues that the distinction is not semantic, but fundamental. (For the record, I think both defendants in those cases clearly violated the law, and deserved to get nailed for their actions -- but that does not change the underlying argument.) Instead, you hear the ridiculous analogy that illegally copying a music file or book is precisely equivalent to walking into a store and shoplifting a copy of the physical item. Apocalyptic predictions of lost profits, failed businesses, and a general deviation from The American Way invariably follow.

As you correctly observed in your essay, this argument presupposes that each instance of copyright infringement is correlated one-to-one
with a lost sale. If that were always (or even mostly) true, this line of thinking would have some merit -- but it's not. I have been asking friends and colleagues informally about this for several years now, and the clear impression I get is that in most cases, if it were not possible to download (say) a single mp3, PEOPLE WOULD SIMPLY NOT BUY THE ALBUM.

(Aside: This is particularly true of music files. People do not like spending $18-20 for a CD only to find that they only like one or two songs on the album, but more importantly, people consume music and movies in fundamentally different ways. I have probably listened to my favorite songs thousands of times, but I have only ever watched a
favorite movie, or read a favorite book, five or ten times at the most. Of course, you will never hear the MPAA acknowledge this, as it weakens
their argument when placed alongside that of the RIAA.)

In any case, Lesson 4 of your essay makes the first mention of this I have seen in any publication, anywhere. I just wish that solid,
balanced arguments such as yours were given at least some consideration (or at least acknowledged) in broader, less technical fora, particularly the major news media. I sincerely believe that a wide swath of middle ground exists between the warez d00dz and the copyright maximalists; I just hope people realize it's there before it's too late.

Again, thanks for your thoughtful piece. Keep up the good work!



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  1. Tim O'Reilly photo About time someone made this point...
    2002-12-12 17:15:32  Tim O'Reilly | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

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