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P2P Good for the Economy? So What?


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Peer to peer file sharing has been a hot topic for as far back as I can remember. Though I am quite clear on where I stand regarding the matter, I must admit that I have read and heard what I consider to be been well-founded arguments on both ends.

This being the case, I always make a concerted effort to tread carefully when nearing this territory, particularly because I am completely aware of my lack of experience and expertise in comparison to some of the intellectual giants involved in the debate. As the great Abe Lincoln once said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

So again, yes, there are good arguments on both sides, but there are also some arguments that are… well, not so good. And it is these arguments that I am much less hesitant to engage with.

I came across an article on a recent study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. The study resulted in a 150-page report which gave comprehensive analyses on how much Dutch Internet users download music, movies, and games, and what the social and economic effects of this downloading are.

One of the more thought-provoking segments of the report was the portion, which dissected the societal effects of file-sharing. The study states that the NET effect of P2P file-sharing on the economy is strongly positive because consumers who engage in the practice save much more money than the producers lose. Furthermore, the report reinforces the notion that unpaid downloads do not directly translate into the same proportion of lost sales.

From what I had gathered, the report seemed to be quite an informative one, and I’m sure that much good will come from such a study having been carried out. My concern is not so much to do with the figures presented in the report so much as the interpretations that may stem from it.

I’m fairly certain that many will perceive this as a strong case in support of the ethicality of peer-to-peer file-sharing. My personal reasons and arguments against the practice aside, I must say that I disagree completely. And I do this without bringing my personal convictions into play because I believe that the vast majority of those who will use the above line of argumentation will not persist when faced with the implications of abiding by this belief taken to its full extent. I’ll elaborate.

I can think of numerous methods through which to improve the economy, which the vast majority considers to be unethical. The legalization of narcotics, for example, would undoubtedly boost the economy. Or what about prostitution? And if these are morally grey areas to some, what about wiping out the handicapped, homeless, and the aged?

These are obviously extreme examples and anyone who even toys with the idea that I view file-sharing in the same moral category as I do the with above examples should go get a life. All that I am saying is that the vast majority of the proponents of this line of thinking – that an action’s ethicality can be judged based on its impact on the economy – will have to fold when they see this perspective through to its end.

There are far more important questions that we should be asking… questions with much more direct relevance to the parties involved. Never mind the impact of P2P on the economy, what is the real impact of file sharing on the artists in question?

I understand what a gargantuan task it is to show this on paper and to my knowledge, there are simply no studies which come close to answering this question conclusively. While waiting, though, I think it is vitally important that we don’t “jump the gun”, and force preconceived conclusions out of irrelevant data.

If we want good answers with regard to the ethical nature of file-sharing, then we need to be pursuing them with the right questions… and P2Ps NET effect on the economy simply ain’t one of them in my book.

Jon Blaylock




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