If file-sharing is piracy, what about aggregators?

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Pirates can be lovable rogues like Johnny Depp.

They can be a plague on international commerce -- like the ragtag group that held Maersk Alabama skipper Richard Phillips hostage before Navy SEALs dealt them swift justice.

They can also be revered forebearers with a past. Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller ran roughshod over opponents back in their day, but their booty now funds libraries, PBS, and hundreds of noble causes.

Recommended: Kim Dotcom: Are such Internet sensations pirates or hactivists?

And then there are the pirates who are much closer to home. Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, YouTube, and most of the peer-to-peer sites on the Web have probably tempted your coworkers, friends, family -- perhaps even you -- with a little intellectual property piracy.

The Age of the Pirate

So what should we make of aggregators?

Topix, Newsvine, and Google all serve as aggregators of news stories from the world's press organizations. Aggregation seems like fair use, although there is plenty of controversy about it. Google has kept its nose clean so far by not selling ads against its Google News aggregation pages. Not so with Topix or Newsvine.

But like Pirate Bay, those aggregation services act as a highway on which any kind of information transaction -- legal or otherwise -- can occur. YouTube doesn't verify if a video is pirated or not. It just allows you to post it. It's not the publisher, you see, it's the neutral shell for millions of self-publishers, whether they are original or not, creators or counterfeiters.

The P-to-P dilemma

So when little Johnny shows his Internet prowess by accessing a file-sharing service to get a copy of the "X-men" prequel -- well, kids will be kids. Besides, it's the Internet. Everything's free on the Internet.

The Internet has created mass confusion about what is fair and what is not fair when it comes to other people's intellectual property. Anders Sandberg, an Oxford University fellow and contributor to the Practical Ethics News blog, sees a "combination of weak intuitions, a bias against commercial interests and powerfully diffused responsibility" working together to make people "quite willing to engage in an activity they would not do if it was tangible and personal."

In other words, everybody's doing it.

Mr. Sandberg goes on to point out that the Pirate Bay case may have implications for Google, YouTube, and other social media sites.

After all, he notes, if "it is criminal to provide a service that makes it easy to download copyrighted information, then they would likely be criminal. The fact that they are not intended for this purpose and that legitimate use dwarfs the piracy is probably not relevant. The key issue is that they provide indexes and search functions that enable downloading of information with no control over its copyright status...."

Maybe file-sharing isn't so bad

Going back to the days of Napster, the usual defense of file-sharing is that exposure of a creative work -- music, software, etc. -- builds its popularity and allows the originator to capitalize to a greater degree. A recent study looked at whether people who illicitly download songs buy more music than those who plunk down 99 cents at the iTunes store.

The BI Norwegian School of Management study indicates that people who download music illegally also buy 10 times as much much as their more honest peers, according to Oslo newspaper Aftenposten (a clunky but still understandable machine translation of that Norwegian story can be found here).

It is not clear that stealing leads to buying, however. It could be that people who tap file-sharing for free music are so keen on music that they also are also bigger buyers than normal.

Does that make it fair? No. But as Sandberg points out, there's so much information and access out there -- and enough power in the hands of the aggregators -- that it's not surprising people are confused.

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When aggregators start t' monetize their indexes, the game changes. Me parrot concurs. You can follow us on Twitter. Arrr!

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