Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"The Kids" learn the hard way about ethics and copyright infringement

Today’s teenagers have grown up connected to a virtual dominion that seems to offer them a continuous flow of freebies. These facilities have, since the 1950s, included broadcast television, followed by cable TV and in the past ten or more years Internet content. Generally, kids have no obvious way of realizing that this content is paid for, often by advertisers, or by the expectation of future legitimate business, even when there is no immediate demand to put money in a cash register.

And higher income kids often see their parents borrow money, and go into debt, for the big SUV’s and homes, clothes and other necessities. They live in an artificial world of high school grades and popularity, and have not yet been confronted with supporting themselves. Of course, I am over generalizing, as there are so many lower income families, and as many teens take minimum wage jobs. Occasionally, kids catch on and start their own businesses, even for charity (as in the Project Greenlight film “Stolen Summer”). But the point is well taken, as it is not easy for teenagers to see what it really costs to produce goods and services, particularly when technology is changing so rapidly.

Psychologists and parents also object to the lure of the virtual world of entertainment and music, as replacing the need for family connections and real involvement with others. All of this is quite variable from family to family, as content can also enrich family experience.

It should not be surprising, however, then, that teens would look at downloads from a peero-to-peer computing network as like refreshments at a social.

I do want to digress here and relate my own experience with music. I took nine years of piano from elementary school to high school, and started collecting records. I remember that record care was a big deal, in the days of heavy tracking tone arms and sapphire needles, just as stereo came in. I collected over 800 records and since the 1980s over 500 classical CDs. I used to get together with a friend in the 1960s and make tapes of records. This was probably copyright infringement, but we justified our behavior by claiming that we were giving the record companies business. Those were the days my friend! Mono records listed at $4.98; discount prices were typically $3.69; half price sales were common and budget labels were coming into being. How many minutes you got on a records was a point of interest, as was inner groove distortion and record wear.

A common complaint of teens has been that record companies stopped issuing singles and sold their music only on expensive CDs. Of course, this has all changed in the past few years; since free downloading has come under legal fire, companies have started offering legal downloads at low prices per song. These companies include the renewed Napster, Apple’s iPod, and Dell and other computer vendors which typically offer legal subscription packages to computer purchasers.

The story of how illegal downloading came to be is itself interesting, as much of it was the work of one Massachusetts teenager, Sean Fanning, who invented the programming concept and implemented it as Napster, first on his campus, probably not understanding the significance of the battles he would start. That has been the asymmetry of the Internet, as with measures that are themselves totally innocuous, individuals with unusual motives can destabilize whole industries or force them to do business in new ways. It’s all part of creative destruction.

Napster became legally vulnerable quickly because it had a centralized server; succeeding peer-to-peer services did not and were able to defend themselves until the Supreme Court ruling for MGM v. Grokster in 2005, discussed in another post here.

Movie piracy poses similar problems, although the large bandwidth required to transmit movies is an issue. It vexes common sense to buy pirated DVDs, but the threat to the industry from perfect digital copies of their product is real. Individual music and movie piracy users have been hunted down from subpoenaed server logs and sued and forced to settle for fines of several thousand dollars each, and sometimes unaware parents or computer owners have been dragged in.

The motion picture business, particularly the system of distribution companies, many of which have merged or been acquired in recent years, as well as theater chains, needs to take a hard look at how to deliver what customers want and will pay for. In some cases, antitrust rules interfering with the ownership of theater chains by studios may be counterproductive. Ideas like simultaneous release of a film on DVD and in a theater (as with Magnolia’s 2006 release of “Bubble”; in the late 1970s PBS did the same with “Breaking Away” with a TV and theatrical release) should be tried for experimental content, as the public is likely to react more favorably. DVD rentals like Netflix have made movie rental much cheaper and reduced the temptation for infringement; the main problem is the time wait for a DVD release, which is probably going to have to shrink for many films. (But some classic films, for unknown reasons, still are not available on DVD.)

There is one other big topic regarding infringement, and that is academic cheating on term papers. On a couple of occasions it has come to my attention that a few items on my site (see my profile) have been used in schools for plagiarism. I fully support the idea of teachers’ using sites like turnitin.com to detect academic cheating. A term paper or research assignment in high school or college is a warm-up for the workplace in the real world. Yet, I came into adulthood in an academic environment buttressed by the Cold War and a political environment that supported student deferments from the draft, with the possibility that academic failure could increase the chances of death or being maimed in combat. I do not see quite the same pressures today. Instead, we have developed a hyper-individualistic culture of extreme capitalism that naturally encourages cheating, as well documented by David Callahan’s 2004 book, The Cheating Culture.

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