Twenty-three years ago, a poisonous seed was planted in minds that contines to upend commercial media.
A teenage hacker named Sean Parker helped to launch a peer-to-peer file sharing network called Napster that exploited the small size of MP3 files of music digitally copied from CDs. This ignited a revolution of easily downloading free copies of songs you would otherwise have to pay artificially high prices for in a record store or wait to hear on the radio between commercials.
So pervasive became the practice that high-speed networks in college dormitories became overloaded, with as much as 61% of external network traffic consisting of MP3 file transfers.
Soon, studio recordings were being pirated and new music leaked out onto the web before it could even be commercially released.
That seed of thought signaled to an entire generation the notion that they shouldn’t have to pay for anything digital, making it acceptable to steal media or ride piggyback on others’ logins rather than paying to subscribe to consume works that cost companies money to produce.
That seed grew the idea that it’s OK to steal content.
The prevalent attitude was that file-sharing was a victim-less activity and the wealthy rock stars flaunting their gaudy mansions on MTV’s “Cribs” could afford to lose some CD sales. The Recording Industry Association of America’s legal actions against individual Napster users was heavy-handed with subpoenas issued to essentially “make an example” out of people they had identified and thus scare others against ripping off high-profile artists.
Thus, illegal distribution of copyrighted works took on the feel of a rebellion against those whose excessive greed oppressed ordinary people, who in turn figured out that record companies couldn’t arrest everyone doing it. It became a criminal game of whack-a-mole.
In the movie “The Social Network,” Parker laments, “There’s not a lot of money in free music. Even less when you’re being sued by everyone who’s ever been invited to the Grammys… We had to declare bankruptcy but I made a name for myself by bringing down the record companies.”
The lawsuits made Napster go away, but a Pandora’s box was opened and other file sharing networks took its place.
In a 2010 Vanity Fair article, Parker described his internet strategy as “re-architecting society. It’s technology, not business or government, that’s the real driving force behind large-scale societal shifts.”
Parker has a net worth of $2.8 billion – based largely on the cache of Facebook stock he owns after helping to grow it into a colossus.
He regrets Facebook, saying it “exploit[s] a vulnerability in human psychology” as it creates a “social-validation feedback loop.”
When you consider disinformation campaigns on Facebook have created deep division inside our country, peer-to-peer networks are routinely used to transmit malicious spyware or viruses into code and the Russians counter their humiliating defeat in Ukraine with threats of using their nuclear stockpile, it appears that Parker, the former boy wonder, is essentially a real-life version of Matthew Broderick’s character from the movie “WarGames” who penetrates vulnerabilities in internet systems to regrettably incite global thermonuclear war.
Digital technology has made unauthorized duplication of copyrighted material and its transmission over the Internet easier. The erosion of sales attributed to illegal copying and sharing of digital files exposed a business model made obsolete by technological innovation.
Unauthorized file-sharing continues unabated with a significant threat to the profitability of the media industry and the cheapening of the perceived value of intellectual capital in general.
Granted, there’s some good in loosening the stranglehold of large media companies who historically stifled creativity by having excessive influence on deciding what types of works get produced and marketed.
But so many great musicians have essentially retired from recording new stuff after milking money from farewell tours.
Enjoy the CDs you ripped for free because there’s no financial incentive for them to invest their dwindling fortunes to produce new material or costly music videos, which are essentially TV commercials for album sales disguised as entertainment.
Without fresh content, MTV has become TV without any music, forced to air the junk food of programming for mass appeal.
Without the artifice of “reality” TV pushing constructed narratives to viewers, there’s likely no Donald Trump, game show host, ascending to the presidency. The dots connect if you look carefully.
Between Napster and viewers “cutting the cord” on expensive cable TV bundling of channels (eliminating the need for local TV affiliates as networks flee to streaming services), the media environment is radically different than it was at the turn of the century.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that even though we stand a good chance of getting away with crimes that “everyone’s doing,” it’s unethical to steal or expect people to work for free.
Rationalizing practices that save us a few dollars but drive companies out of business makes us the greedy ones.