On June 27, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, illegalized peer-to-peer file sharing networks — P2P for short. Motion Picture Association (MPA) moguls, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) giants and other capitalists, who fought long and valiantly to convince the American people that sharing art is a mortal sin, now rejoice in their victory over the evil P2P.
If you can’t tell, this writer finds the decision a major setback for people’s movements the world over, for several reasons.
Let me explain very simply what P2P is, by drawing an analogy with the post office. When two people need to transmit information to each other, they have at their disposal the U.S. postal system. It allows information (data) to travel back and forth between the two people. It places no real constraints on the information that the people want to communicate. In this sense, the postal system is a communication framework. P2P networks operate in a very similar fashion. They allow people to transmit data from one computer to another, without constraints on the type of data transmitted.
P2P networks have been used in recent years primarily for transmitting art (in the broad sense of the word). This includes music, images and movies. Of course, the P2P network itself does not care what kind of information is transmitted — the data transmitted depends solely on the human participants.
Big business originally claimed that P2P networks caused their profits to fall. Yet this claim has been disproved again and again by a simple and frank analysis of the numbers. Their profits have not fallen.
Big business also tried to convince us that copyright infringement (one of the big sins of P2P networks) hurts the artist. However, recently, this very issue came before the Supreme Court in a case where big business successfully argued for a time extension of copyright protection (Eldred v. Ashcroft). Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissenting opinion that it’s the corporations that in fact hold an ever-increasing number of copyrights of popular work, and that the extension of copyright protection “will mean the transfer of several billion extra royalty dollars” to big business.
The corporations also attempted to get their artists to convince people that P2P networks are wrong. Remember Metallica, perhaps one of the richest rock bands in American history, desperately appealing to fans that sharing music was morally wrong? Well, the fans didn’t buy it.
So then big business attacked the working class directly. At movie theaters across the country, before our movie started we were treated to commercials that showed theater janitors and projectionists pleading with the audience to abandon P2P file sharing networks before the workers lose their jobs. But working people still did not buy it.
If their profits are not challenged in any significant way, why does big business so actively oppose P2P networks? Is it simply the potential threat to their profits? This writer argues otherwise. Read on.
P2P networks challenge commodity fetishism — the widespread belief that a product’s price is an inherent quality of the product itself. Thousands of years ago, humans created works of art as a means of expression and communication. They did not sell the art. They shared it to enrich the collective human experience. But today, the large majority of humans believe that art naturally sells for a price. The commodification of art, and its associated fetishism, is perhaps the most disgusting ideological effect of modern capitalist society. And it’s this notion that P2P networks challenge. And it’s for this reason, above all others, that the RIAA, MPA and other capitalists so violently oppose P2P networks.
Now, sadly, big business has won a major legal victory in the ongoing ideological war. Will the working class finally acquiesce? There are other reasons besides commodity fetishism to oppose the ruling.
Consider the following implications for freedom of speech. We’ve already seen that a P2P network itself is nothing more than a way to transmit information from one person to another. It places no constraints on the type of data transmitted — copyrighted or free, legal or illegal. Yet this communication framework has been outlawed. Then why stop there? The Internet, the underlying framework for P2P, shares just as much blame as the P2P applications themselves. And since we already know that the postal system and P2P networks are in fact analogous, why not illegalize the postal system? And for that matter, shouldn’t we illegalize speaking while we’re at it? I could read out loud a copyrighted work and thereby transmit that work to other people who do not own it! Have I committed a crime in doing so?
Matt Parker is a computer scientist and communerd living in Texas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.