Illegal != immoral

David Pogue writes an article in the NYTimes in which he relates an anecdote that seems to illustrate a generational difference in copyright morality. It’s an interesting article, though the comments are much more revealing than the article itself.

In that vein, let me comment.

There are several important factors to take into consideration here. First, I don’t think young people today have less of a moral bent than their parents. But let’s assume they do for a second, and ask where this dubious shift in morality comes from. Obviously, parents shoulder part of blame, as does society at large for situational morality. Yet, one can point to the big media companies who have for years put out product that glorifies every manner of immoral behaviour (showing, of course, these companies’ lack of moral fibre: they’ll do anything to make a buck, sell anything as long as it turns a profit), and I think you’ll feel a lot less sorry for them as they lie in the bed they’ve made. I think we call this, “sowing the seeds of your own destruction”.

Whether or not today’s youth have no moral compass, while an interesting question, is less pertinent to me than simple market economics.

When I buy something, it belongs to me. This is a central understanding in most of history’s transactions, except where otherwise stated, or where it’s obvious that you have to give it back.

When something belongs to me, I can do what I like with it, within reasonable limits. This is true of everything I own, from my house to my car. However, when media companies sell you something, they seem to believe it is still theirs, that they can tell you what to do with it, and even though you never have to give it back, that they can somehow control its use. This runs against human nature, though, and they should be thoroughly unsurprised when people invent tools to enable them to do what they like with what they own. This is one market, the ability to do what I like with what I own (device-shift, share, lend, et cetera).

Another market is in obtaining media. Right now the easiest way to get media is on the internet. Content owners saw this coming and did nothing to corner this market, for whatever reason. Another market a black/grey market sprung up to distribute media. When the content owners eventually came to their senses they were relegated to a ghetto of their own making, and with the lackluster efforts thus far, will continue to be. Not to mention that the media distributed by these content owners tends to be low-quality and locked into a specific device/format. Doubly ironic is that file-sharers can get a better copy (and keep in mind that this has not been historically true in many other black/grey markets) and a copy that they can do with as they see fit. Those who keep the law are penalised by the content providers and legislators who give them an inferior product, and those who break the law are rewarded by better availability and a better product.

The media companies have done their monopolies unimaginable harm in not taking the internet seriously. Much like IBM ceding control of the entire personal computing market to Microsoft, the content providers have dropped the ball so hard and so far that they seem unable to even find it to pick it up again. If anything, they seem to be hellbent on securing their place in the dustbin of history.

People take the path of least resistance. This isn’t about morality. It’s about the who will provide the best market for goods. And the content providers still don’t get that.

Add to this that (obviously) illegal and immoral are not bound at the hip. Plenty of things become illegal without being immoral. And when media companies begin to (obviously) buy the allegiances of politicians to see draconian laws made to limit how people may use what they have purchased, the immorality of file-sharing (for instance) becomes even more of a grey area.

The causes of this “moral shift” are many and varied. The internet is not an easy thing to adjust to, especially for monopolies (see Microsoft as an example). However, if the content providers made a better product, if they had more availability, and if the price was reasonable, they would be doing a roaring business on the internet. This is not a hard concept to grasp, and not a terribly difficult thing to implement in these days of almost-free bandwidth. The question become whether or not they’re not giving the market too little too late.

Human behaviour is economic behavour, and the content providers are stuck in a decade-old market with very few paying customers.