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Usability isn’t a crime

The programmers behind The Pirate Bay are getting charged with making it easy to share files over the BitTorrent protocol. Note that it’s not because they’ve done it themselves, but because they have made it easier for others. Never before has usability been a crime.

“They have to get paid”

Copyright holders protest and say that they “have to” get paid for what they produce. And that argument seems to work well with people, because hey, why shouldn’t they? (Real non-geeky people, not people like you).

At the same time, people seem to agree that there are exceptions. It is considered OK to play music to your friends. Or lending a CD to a friend over the weekend. Or letting a colleague listen to some music on your iPod. So sharing with friends is fine. The problem, and the major change that many have missed, is that people have more friends than ever before. All across to globe, all connected via the interwebs. And as the number of friends grow, people tend to shift over, and not consider it OK to share any longer. “Hey, you can’t share with 100 people! The artists have to get paid!”.

Lets make some laws

So lets say you want to make laws based on that kind of “reasonable sharing”. How would you do that? Do you lawfully define what a friend is? The number of friends a person is allowed to have? That you have to keep a count of how many times you let someone listen to your iPod? No, it just doesn’t work.

Perhaps if you put a ban on some types of technology. Technology that makes it easy to share to many? No, because technology moves several magnitudes faster then laws get made, so as soon as you manage to ban one technology, there are five new ones available that circumvent your law. Allow any form of sharing and technology will generalize it to be used for mass sharing. (See OneSwarm for an example).

What about using technology to block sharing? This is what’s called DRM, Digital Rights Management. Sorry, it just doesn’t work. Every DRM system ever built, has been broken. The core problem is: it’s not possible to both block people from sharing music, and let people listen to it.

“Hmm, then maybe allow no sharing?”

So what about banning sharing altogether, strange as it may seem? Well, paying customers would hate it. A big part of music is sharing it with people, hoping that they will like what you like. We want to play music at our parties, without requiring everyone to pay a license fee to attend. A complete ban (and extensive citizen surveillance to go with it) would quickly lead to a separation between music that we can share, and music we can’t share.

This is exactly what has happened with computer programs. There’s now proprietary and open source, no-share and please-share. Open source is growing stronger every day, and lots of companies decide to join the tide, and release their code the same way. This is exactly what will happen to music. Let’s call it the Open Music movement, and lets see how many years the no-share music will last.

Sharing is nothing strange

To explain why allowing people to share isn’t so strange, compare a famous book author to a famous speaker. People tend to think that writers must get paid for what they write, once every time someone reads their text. If lots of people read what they write, they somehow “are entitled to” lots of money.

Speakers on the other hand, get paid each time they speak. Not each time someone listens to a recording of their speech, or someone else repeats what they say, but based on their own performance, once. They get paid for original performance, not copying. This also means that speakers want their stuff to be spread as much as possible. Because for each copy, there’s a potential new customer waiting to pay them to perform.

So why is it so strange to see the same model for writers? Writers that get paid for their performance when writing a book, not by the number of people that read it.

Separate distribution and performance

So we have to separate distribution from performance. Distribution is the reason that authors think they need the big companies. How else could they distribute their great performances to a large audience? Well, the internet. Yeye, but how can they distribute it and get paid? That’s where things get interesting, because now we’re talking about business models.

Media companies have had a distribution monopoly for a very long time. Now the internet threatens that monopoly, by making it easy for anyone to distribute anything, for free. This isn’t going to change, no matter what kinds of laws that get pushed through. So how do you tackle that?

And that’s the challenge that the record industry should put all their power towards. Think of speakers instead of writers, how do they get money? Think of how the TED conference makes lots of money off speakers. Think of how you can build technology to compete with BitTorrent, how to get people to pay for performance, not distribution. Think of how you can improve usability, something that’s in a pretty bad state when it comes to BitTorrent.

What model to use is not my problem

Companies missing proper business models is not my problem. It isn’t, and has never been, a government problem either. There’s no reason to pass integrity limiting laws to help companies survive. There doesn’t need to be completed alternatives waiting. That’s their own problem to solve, and time will tell if they manage the switch before it’s too late or not. I don’t know.

Meanwhile the internet continues to evolve, while media companies try to fine the programmers behind The Pirate Bay…

Friendly Bit is a blog by Emil Stenström, a Swedish web developer that occasionally gets ideas of how to improve the internet.