File-sharing: missing the big picture?

File-sharing is still a hot topic in the news. On one hand, most of the media out there is still touting file-sharing as “piracy” and “theft.” Both the complaining parties (mostly the RIAA and the MPAA) and self-proclaimed file-sharers are arguing that file-sharing continues simply because people can get away with it. Record companies are attributing the drop in CD sales over the past two years to file-sharing, not to the drop in CD production overall (fewer titles) and very real recession from which the country is suffering (which has spanned the past two years while file-sharing has been around since 1998).

At Stanford, the Daily publishes articles and editorials regularly on file-sharing and University policy, often causing many headaches for the administration and legal counsel. There is much argument over Stanford’s, not to mention any University’s responsbilities and policies as an ISP and under Title II of the DMCA.

However, most of this media coverage is missing the big picture– nobody should be talking about whether file-sharing is illegal when it comes to copyrighted material. It’s illegal. End of story. What the discussion, the argument, the media coverage should really be about is whether it should be illegal and what millions of people continuing to share digital music and video files says about the future of file-sharing, copyright and the entertainment industry.

Record companies and the like are filing grievances as copyright holders and while they do have the right to protect their creative works, current copyright law severely slows down the passing of material into the public domain where it can be used for learning and more importantly, to build on top of for new creative work. What good is all this art if you can’t have access to it, learn from it and build on top of it? While Disney and whoever else might want to work day and night to hold onto the rights to their own creative works, after a certain amount of time, most people don’t mind their work passing into the public domain for others to access freely and build on. (Check out the The Eric Eldred Act.)

Moreover, we spend all this time fretting over Microsoft’s OS monopoly, but we ignore the fact that the entertainment industry is controlled by a handful of companies– television, magazines, newspapers, movies and music are all owned and controlled by subsidiaries of a few media giants– and for some reason, they’ve decided to fight the changing tide of consumer activity. With the growth of the Internet, people have greater access to information than ever before and they have– and want– everything at their fingertips.

I don’t want to have to go the corner store and pick up a newspaper– I just want to quickly visit some news sites, or better yet, I want to open up my browser homepage and take a quick glance at customized headlines and content put together just for me at my favorite Internet portal.

If I or my TiVo miss that last episode of ER, I don’t want to have to wait until the reruns a year from now– I want to be able to get a copy of the episode ASAP and get caught up on the story. And my favorite episodes of the season? Oh yeah, I want those ASAP too. I can’t wait for the DVD release three years from now.

I don’t want to have to go to the bookstore and go through aisles and aisles in search of a book I know I want, but can’t seem to find because it’s either A) somewhere I don’t think it would be or B) simply out of stock. I want to be able to do a quick search online, order a book I know is in stock and have it delivered to my doorstep.

I don’t want to have to suffer through conversations with incompetent salespeople and long lines to order a new hard drive or digital camera– I just want to go online, see what’s available, read a thousand reviews on a particular type of product, and pick the one I want for the best price I can get. Even if the best price is from a noname electronics store in the middle of Kansas.

And I don’t want to have to pay for an entire CD if I don’t want to– I just want the songs I like. I’ll try the other ones, but only for free and if I like them, then I’ll buy the whole CD. And I don’t want to pay for the cost of media, packaging and liner notes that I never get in a digital media.

The current controversy over file-sharing should not be about whether or not it’s wrong to steal music– we know it’s wrong. But we aren’t doing it just because we can get away with it– well, maybe just a little. The more important thing is, we don’t care– we’ve found a better way to get our fix of movies and music and the truth is, we’re willing to pay for it. But if the entertainment companies aren’t going to provide it, we’ll find another way.