The anonymity of the internet seems to encourage the emergence of a certain kind of group of people. These online communities are united in holding fervent and eagerly-espoused concepts, and in becoming mortally offended at those who so much as disagree. Their opinions may be based on well-considered logical arguments or on illogical and biased premises, but their arguments almost always end up as ad hominem attacks on their detractors. Amongst these groups might be numbered Apple Mac fans; militant atheists; and filesharers.
It is the latter group that recently caught my attention. Starting with a partisan opinion piece published in the Age and continuing in a lengthy string of comments, a discussion on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement has several times brought up the commonly-argued concept that “digital piracy is not theft”. This is based on the premise that the theft of a physical object deprives the original owner of its possession and use, whereas copying of a piece of media leaves the original intact for use and sale as it had been previously. This argument is erroneous, but it is also understandable. The premise is both encouraged and invalidated by a dichotomy in our understanding of democracy and capitalism.
Western culture holds two fundamentally disparate and mutually exclusive ideas both to be true. They cannot both be true, and it is from the clash between them that much confusion and disagreement springs.
Fundamental truth #1: All people are equal.
This truth is so fundamental that it features heavily in the Holy Bible (see for instance Galatians 3:28, James 2:1, Romans 3:23), the writings of such luminary philosophers as Aristotle, and later the American Declaration of Independence. The principle of democracy is based on the idea of equal involvement and weight of opinion of all the people. Of course, the strength of this fundamental truth has varied over the centuries through redefinition of the term “people”. For millennia, such minority groups as slaves, negroes, foreigners and women were excluded from the protection of statements of equality. We are finally, over the last fifty years or so, coming to a place in society where “people” actually means “human beings”.
Having laid to rest the debate over who constitutes “people”, the arguments have returned to definition of the term “equal”. According to current understanding, “equal” actually means “certain minimum rights for all”. Outside of these basic human rights, which are themselves subject to much disagreement and discussion, much disparity in conditions of life and in treatment is permissible. Paupers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, for instance, have certain indispensible human rights. But these rights do not include the right to similar treatment in all circumstances.
Looked at from a certain direction, of course, the concept that “all men/women are equal” is laughable. People are not born equal. We might have common rights and privileges, and society might enforce a common set of values and rules upon us, but every person has a unique set of thought processes, reactions to stimuli, personal ethics and values, and lifetime financial potential.
Fundamentally, though, very few seriously disagree that human beings should be regarded as equal – that one life is not worth more than any other, and that all people should be given equal conditions and opportunities to succeed, grow and thrive.
Working against this fundamental truth is truth #2.
Fundamental truth #2: individual efforts justify individual rewards.
This, in a nutshell, is capitalism. Capitalism insists that everything has a value and a price. “Everything” includes the worker’s time and skills, their knowledge, and their labour; it includes physical goods, services, infrastructure and real estate; it includes, even, each person’s lifetime financial potential. Taken together, all these factors of value add up to create a market. It is through the constant evolution of the market, the ongoing transfer of value from one person to another and from one location to another, that capitalism exists.
Which is to say that capitalism can be summed up in one fundamental sentence: “All people are not, and cannot be, equal”. Capitalism works by placing a price on every aspect of life, and that price is dictated by value. Value is dictated by the balance of demand and availability. In order for something to have a demand, by definition, it must have limited supply.
Under the terms of modern capitalism, there are – there must be – winners and losers. Those who are successful in capitalism are those who have what they want or need. They own the cars, the televisions, the real estate, the businesses. In order for capitalism to continue to work, there must be demand; there must be people who do not have these things and aspire to have them.
Society acts to place constraints upon capitalism. It indicates that there are certain products and services that are outside of the normal have/not have marketplace, things that are deemed mandatory for all persons. In Australia, our well-developed social support systems forcibly raise the ‘have nots’ above their market-dictated station. But these persons – the homeless and dispossessed, the unemployed, and the mentally impaired – cannot be regarded as equal.
So how does this reflect on online piracy?
Those who argue that downloading a movie over BitTorrent is not stealing, inasmuch as it does not deprive anybody of ownership, ignores the current methodologies of capitalism. Capitalism places a value on that movie. This value dictates the level of the bar, above which the ‘haves’ can access the media, and the ‘have nots’ cannot, until they devote sufficient resources (value) to its acquisition. Stealing is not actually defined by the transfer of possession of a physical good. Rather, it is the abrogation of the capitalist contract – the acquisition of value without a corresponding payment of another kind of value. If I steal a CD from a store, I am not likely to be depriving the store of a sale; in most instances there will be plenty to spare, and if I take the last one the store can simply order more stock. Rather, I deprive the store (and the manufacturer/distributor/artist) of my return of value in exchange for that CD and the value it represents.
Those who argue that “information should be free” and that online sharing of media is justified are actually arguing either that the media has no value – a position that would have dire consequences for the significant amounts of investment required for the ongoing operation of media industries such as music and movies – or that the current system of “exchange of value” is abrogated on the internet. In a way, it could be argued that online piracy is not only theft. It could feasibly argued that online piracy is a form of revolutionary activity. Now whether or not it is worth attempting to overthrow the current capitalist system is an argument for another day, but it must be accepted that democratic capitalism has the popular support of ‘society’.
I recently came across this quote:
In the state of nature…all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the law. — Charles de Montesquieu
de Montesquieu might have been writing in the 1700s, but his words still hold true. There’s one other quote that seems to fit in this discussion. From Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”