Should I be worried about piracy?
I would discourage worrying of any kind as a general principle. Worrying is a fear that something bad might happen — a negative emotional state with no external cause in reality. So on that basis, no — I wouldn’t worry about piracy.
I’d also suggest that piracy is not something that tends to happen on the scale that the mainstream media seems to suggest. Unauthorised duplication goes on, but not piracy. The idea that these two things are the same is one that major record labels tend to be quite fond of, but it bears no resemblance to either external reality, or what words actually mean.
Let me outline what I see as the differences between those two things.
Unauthorised copying is the practice of making duplicates of recorded music, usually for personal and social advantage — and most typically for reasons of convenience.
If my friend has a CD copy of a U2 record that I don’t own (for instance) and I put it in my computer and instruct my iTunes software to import that music, then that’s an unauthorised copy.
If I email a track from that album to a friend of mine, that’s another unauthorised copy. If I burn a CD from my iTunes playlist so I can listen to that album in my car, there’s another unauthorised copy.
If I then put that U2 record into my shared folder in Limewire so that my fellow peers online can download it, that’s unauthorised copying (but only if they actually download it — at present, ‘making available’ is not considered ‘distribution’).
If I scan the artwork, set up a mass CD replication production process, manufacture cheap copies of the CD and then distribute and sell the album for financial gain, then that’s piracy. Which is bad and wrong.
Now, simple economics would suggest that if I was going to invest capital in a mass replication process, then it would be U2 and their like that I would want to be mass replicating. The value of the hit, to the actual pirate, is much greater than the value of the non-hit.
So the short answer to the question about whether you should even give piracy a second thought is: Are you U2?
But that’s a flippant response and the question deserves more serious consideration. When asking ‘Should I be worried about piracy?’ the real underlying question is about whether there is a significant potential loss of income as a result of unauthorised copying. And here we’re talking about what’s generally referred to as the ‘Lost Sale’.
The Lost Sale is the idea that because someone came into possession of a track of yours as an mp3, then that is one less copy that will now be sold, thereby depriving you of your rightful income. From the artist and label perspective, it’s the sense of indignation that “all of these people now have my music – and they didn’t give me any money for it. I worked hard and invested all this money, and they’re just stealing it from me…”
It’s an understandable emotion. But it’s not a helpful approach – for three reasons:
1) Copying, as I’ve mentioned before, just happens online. You can’t legislate against it, prevent it by technical means nor force people to behave in ways that you would like them to. If you’re going to make recorded music, you have to be aware that you live in a world where this is what goes on. Refusing to accept that on principled grounds will only lead to stress and illness, and the unhelpful belief that every music consumer is a criminal.
2) The fluidity with which your music can pass from hand to hand is not an impediment to your success, but a technological advantage that you can leverage to your own ends. The overwhelming cry from the independent musician twenty years ago was ‘How can I just get my music out there?’ Problem solved. Now what are you going to do?
3) There are several phases to music that I characterise as Composition, Production, Distribution, Promotion and Consumption. All of those links in the chain are very important. I would suggest that if a technology is not cutting it for you in one part of the chain, it’s sensible to move it to another part of that same chain. That is to say, if you want mp3s to be the way that you profitably distribute music but the results are unsatisfying because of unauthorised copying, then redeploy mp3s to be the way that you profitably promote your music instead.
Now, of course, this raises more questions than it answers — and of course, things are far more complicated than I’ve laid out here — but as a general principle, it’s worth considering that rather than fret about unauthorised copying and expend time and energy in the fruitless task of preventing people from engaging in it, that time and energy can be better spent elsewhere.
And here are three more things to consider:
1) People who share your music are recommending you to people who respect their taste and opinion;
2) The vast majority of people who have unauthorised copies of your music would not have ordinarily paid for it anyway;
3) Do you really want for people who cannot afford your music to be prevented from ever hearing it?
The single most effective way to stop people from copying your music is to stop making music. If that’s not an option (and why would it be?) then accepting that this is the world in which we live is a good start towards successfully negotiating the new media environment.
I think I'm going to start collecting blog posts of this sort to collect into an anthology about Free Culture...