Online "Piracy," SOPA and the Moral Economy

Data from a Nov. 2011 study conducted by the American Assembly suggests that legal media is replacing online "piracy." Apparently, when given a legal alternative that is available at the right price and usage point, consumers are paying for movies, games and music online.

Why are internet-users paying for something they could get for free?

“There is ethics at work in these decisions,” Joe Karaganis, vice president of the American Assembly told The Register.

Mr. Karganis's reference to ethics with respect to what big media calls internet "piracy," reminded me of a recent videotaped conversation between Simon Pulman of Starlight Runner and Prof. Henry Jenkins of USC, where Prof. Jenkins discussed his views about online "piracy" in terms of what economists and historians have come to call "moral economy."

What is Moral Economy?

The term "moral economy" was first coined by Prof. E. P. Thompson writing about the English food riots of the 18th century (e.g., keelmen in Tyne in 1709 and tin miners in Falmouth in 1727). In a 1971 essay entitled “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd”, E. P. Thompson observed: "It is possible to detect in almost every eighteenth-century crowd action some legitimizing notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs and in general, that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community."

In other words the food riots were (for the 18th century rioters) more than desperate need-driven and immoral acts. In the eyes of the rioters, the food riots were an attack on a system that did not reflect the reality experienced by the masses.

The 18th century mobs were not just rioting to steal food (in some cases food stocks were destroyed, not plundered) but to humiliate the profiteers and hoarders who were seen as opposed to the interests of all peasants. As Prof. Thompson wrote in a subsequent book: "[O]ne function of riot was to moderate the appetite for profit unleashed by the developing ‘free market.’”

Media scholar Prof. Henry Jenkins recently observed that it might be helpful to compare the behavior of 21st century internet "pirates" to the conduct of 18th century food rioters.

Whether we agree with today's young internet users or not, it is worth noting that from their perspective, their online behavior is grounded upon a moral view of the internet and how ideas should spread online. Many young users of the internet and entrepreneurs who are building businesses online, oppose new internet censorship laws like SOPA. Their ideas of legitimate practices generally include remixing and appropriating small amounts of copyright content, as long as the motive is not enterprise-level commerce or obviously harmful to the copyright holder. In their eyes, these internet users are moral actors, with a defensible and coherent 21st century view of social norms and obligations.

In other words, from their perspective, like the food rioters of the 1700s, the internet "pirates" of today may not simply be engaged in immoral acts. They see a morality at work - one that is supported by the masses of internet users: A morality that policy makers are currently ignoring.

Please note: Observing that so-called internet "pirates" might be expressing a commonly held belief among their group and a great many internet users (about the disconnect between copyright law and the ease of copying?) does not make the "pirates'" actions right.

My point is that, in crafting new laws like SOPA, Congress is making decisions about the proper economic relationship of the parties. And an analysis that only considers "protecting U.S. intellectual property from foreign criminals" but ignores how the new law will adversely effect the millions of American citizens who are currently using the internet - by limiting their access to legitimate foreign sites and by marking anyone who links to a prohibited foreign site as a criminal - is a prescription for failure.

Just as rioting to keep bread prices at traditional levels was said to constitute the most anti-social expression of "the moral economy of the poor" - illegal copying via bit torrent sites may represent the worst of the moral assumptions of the wired.

What does this mean with respect to the debate about SOPA?

Can policy makers ignore the widely-held beliefs of a large segment of society - and censor websites and criminalize behavior that many feel is not criminal (e.g., linking to foreign sites that might themselves contain links to un-permissioned copies)?

In my opinion, the disconnect between the big content owners and the millions of Americans who use the internet in ways that big media wants to stop, needs to be bridged by laws that do not criminalize behaviors that are pervasive (incidental copying and sharing for non-commercial use). Obviously, the interests of the big content owners need to be protected, but not by outlawing broad swaths of internet use.

In my view, the cost-benefit analysis of SOPA must include 1) the unintended consequences of the new law, 2) the serious questions about its efficacy, and perhaps most importantly 3) the beliefs of millions of people for whom the new law will create a new scheme of censorship that will deprive them of access to content and innovation.

Is it impossible to formulate a new model that protects big content owners but also avoids censorship and criminalization of behaviors that many Americans feel are right?

In the current debate over SOPA, Congress would be wise to consider how the conduct of the masses (revealing, as Prof. Thompson wrote, while discussing another "illegal" mass action, “custom, culture and reason”) can be reconciled with the "free market" claims of big media.

A note on semantics: The extension of the term "moral economy" to internet "pirates" would almost certainly not meet with Prof. E. P. Thompson's approval (we'll never know, as he died in 1993). While he was alive, Prof. Thompson tried to limit the use of the term "moral economy." Prof. Thompson was pointedly reluctant to analyze every situation in which consumers and capitalists disagreed about the pricing or availability of a commodity as involving a "moral" component: "It is not only that there is an identifiable bundle of beliefs, usages and forms associated with the marketing of food in time of dearth, which it is convenient to bind together in a common term, but the deep emotions stirred by dearth, the claims which the crowd made upon the authorities in such crises and the outrage provoked by profiteering in life-threatening emergencies, imparted a particular “moral” charge to protest. All of this, taken together, is what I understand by moral economy."

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