Blogs & Comment

The 'end of free' is near? Keep dreaming

The ability to get stuff “free” is not based on opportunity. It’s based on desire.


(Photo: Rock1997)

I had a fun debate with a friend the other night over who was more annoying: Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, or Paul McGuinness, U2′s manager. Ulrich is, of course, famous for leading the charge against Napster, the file-sharing service that turned the music industry upside down a decade ago. McGuinness, who continues the fight against free downloading today, is basically the drummer’s heir apparent.

My position was that McGuinness is the worse of the duo. While Ulrich struck many as a cry-baby millionaire, at least he had the decency to fight Napster out in the open, in court. McGuinness, however, would rather subtly lobby policy makers to try and get laws changed, partly through publishing op/ed pieces in major newspapers.

A week ago, his latest screed against downloading – headlined “Digital Downloads: The ‘age of free’ is coming to an end” – appeared in The Daily Telegraph. A few days ago, The Globe and Mail published the exact same article, with a sentence or two changed so that it was more “Canada relevant.” To say it’s highly unusual for one major newspaper to regurgitate something another major paper published a week ago would be an understatement. Hmm, I wonder if Bono pulled some strings with his editor buddies?

In any event, in his article McGuinness praised the recent deal struck in the United States between entertainment companies and internet service providers, where the ISPs agreed to act as copyright cops. Most of the country’s major ISPs have agreed to initiate a so-called graduated response system where subscribers who download copyrighted work will be warned several times, after which their internet access will be slowed and potentially even cut off.

McGuinness said this was great, that ISPs finally taking responsibility for what goes over their networks is part of a worldwide trend:

“The US is not the first country where ISPs have started to cooperate with rights holders. Similarly sensible thinking broke out in France in 2007, thanks to President Sarkozy. France, along with a growing number of other countries, including South Korea and most recently New Zealand, has introduced a so-called graduated response law, obliging ISPs to take proactive steps to help curb copyright abuse. The UK has passed its Digital Economy Act which, if it is implemented effectively, will go down a similar route.”

Perhaps he’s right. Like their American brethren, Canadian ISPs have so far – to their credit – resisted the pressure to become copyright cops, an exemption they would continue to enjoy under the latest proposed copyright legislation. However, I’m sure it would surprise nobody if this eventually changes, either by the ISPs following their American cousins’ lead and folding like a cheap accordion, or by the Canadian government beating them to it.

Nevertheless, cops or no cops, McGuinness and those who agree with him are missing one very important fact: the “age of free” is nowhere near an end, simply because the ability to get stuff “free” is not based on opportunity, it’s based on desire.

For all of human history, people have wanted to get something for nothing – it’s in our very nature. Whether or not we have been able to do so has been directly commensurate to the opportunities we’ve had. The internet has provided that opportunity on an unprecedented level; short of taking it away entirely, nothing will sate that desire. To say the age of free is coming to an end, then, is to suggest that the Rapture is well and truly upon us, or that the plug is about to be pulled on the internet. That’s hardly the case.

The technological opportunity to satisfy the desire for free is going to keep growing, and exponentially so. The only thing that may be “over” are the days of unencrypted file-sharing. ISP warnings and threats will spur the growth and advancement of encryption, virtual private networks, IP spoofing and, heck, even some good old-fashioned switching from one service provider to another. Maybe some smaller rogue ISPs will even use this in their marketing: “Get your service from us; We don’t bend over for the entertainment industry!”

What is definitely over are the days of people willing to fork over lots of cash for goods they now know are cheap to produce and distribute, which is something the entertainment industry just doesn’t seem to get. There is an acceptable middle ground between “free” and what they would like to see, and it is slowly but surely manifesting. Jesse Brown recently mused on this in a blog post, wherein he argued that the internet is basically a giant dollar store. Creators are selling songs, apps, games, ebooks and all kinds of other stuff for just 99 cents and not many seem to be complaining – it’s only the big companies and industries, like U2 Inc., that are.

What’s over are the days of huge profits for such monoliths. Sorry Lars, sorry Paul. The desire for free – or very nearly free – has always been here and it’s not going anywhere.