Law in the Internet Society

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Media Free-For-All

-- By ChrisWoller - 16 Oct 2014

With patience and a little know-how, you can find almost anything you want to watch online, free of charge. Movies, television episodes and live sporting events usually require, at max, five-minutes of searching and link experimentation before they can be viewed on one’s computer screen. Thanks to websites such as First Row Sports and Project Free TV, to provide just two examples, individuals never have to worry about being unable to watch their favorite show or missing the big game.

Of course, the legal legitimacy of viewing media in this fashion is hazy. The truth is that it might not be illegal for individuals to view media on these websites. Still, it is legitimate to wonder why individuals should be allowed to view media at no cost beyond their monthly Internet bills, especially when large expenses are required to produce such media.

Why “illegal” streaming is good, for everybody involved

The truth is that, without use of these sites, a massive amount of media would remain unseen and unutilized. Yes, there are “legitimate” ways to view media online – Netflix, Hulu, HBOGo, etc. – and one can watch usually watch sporting events online with either a cable subscription or a separate, expensive, online viewing package. Nonetheless, the majority of extant movies and television episodes are not available on these platforms. The individual who is watching the episode of their favorite old movie over an “illegal” stream might be incapable of viewing the media without utilizing the websites that offer the stream for free.

One can imagine that the creators of the media are much happier having their content actively sought, seen and engaged, instead of left dormant and forgotten. In the eyes of the some artists and executives, however, individuals viewing these streams are stealing, plain and simple.

This mindset is self-defeating, however. Streaming allows free initial access to media, which can in turn inspire an individual to find a legitimate means to watch. There are several reasons this might occur. First, paranoia of a prospective Napster-esque lawsuit from the copyright owners might cause one to seek a legitimate means to consume the media (objectively, of course, such a suit is incredibly unlikely). Or, once a user has decided they enjoy a program, they might seek out legitimate means of viewing on moralistic grounds, not wanting to “steal” when there are “honest” ways to view the media. One might also seek legitimate means to view programs for strictly pragmatic reasons. Streaming websites are a cesspool of pop-up advertisements, malware and pornographic images. The quality of the video is typically very poor, and the video requires frequent buffering, with constant stops and starts. The streams have a propensity to stop working altogether. Someone interested in a program might just decide his or her viewing needs are better satisfied with a high quality, reliable platform.

Additionally, even if a user does not eventually seek legitimate means to consume media, there are intangible benefits that artists and production companies experience from having their media viewed. The more a program is watched, the more likely it achieves cultural relevance. Economic returns can eventually accrue from becoming popular in the form of merchandise sales, website hits, etc. Industry respect can also result from a show’s popularity. Directors, actors and others involved in the production can have their status elevated, resulting in increased demand for their services, increased attention to their other projects, or, at the very least, more attention to their Twitter feeds. Sure enough, the executive of the most pirated show of all time recognizes the benefits of the “cultural buzz” that occurs when a show becomes culturally ubiquitous. Because of socioeconomic reasons, and the aforementioned lack of access, such ubiquity could not occur without pirating and online streaming.

Media access should be available, regardless

While media does not possess the same utility as open-source software, there are similar arguments supporting unbridled access to media content. While not everyone who watches movies and television is interested in creating, everyone who is interested in creating movies and television does watch. Free access to media, then, gives future artists the reagents with which to create the next generation of similar media forms.

The counterpoint is, of course, obvious: media can’t be created without large financial investments. If everything was free, no money would be made and productions would lose funding. However, under the current system, there will always be someone (the upper-middle class, suburban families, luddites, the elderly) willing to fit the bills currently charged for legitimate access to media. Of course, completely free access to media has the potential to create a free rider problem. But consider -- would this be a bad thing?

A similar phenomenon has occurred in the music industry. Unfiltered access to music via file-sharing created a sea-change in the industry. While one can still acquire music illegitimately (torrents, for example), there are now several legitimate ways to enjoy volumes of music, free of charge (e.g. Pandora, Spotify). Many artists have also opted to give their music away for free. If anything, the music industry meltdown has taught us that industries will adapt to complete availability of their media. As a result, music has become available in a more affordable and efficient manner. A similar phenomenon seems likely, or at least possible within the visual media industry.

Finally, media is information. Granted, an episode of South Park is not equivalent to a wiki explaining how to change a tire or describing the human genome. Nonetheless, popular media is an inevitable element of life, particularly in social contexts. Access to media is conducive to social adaption and bonding. Having common interests and experiences with peers raises one’s confidence within social groups. This confidence allows individuals to self-actualize, and, as a result, to maximize their life experiences as well as what they can contribute to society. An individual should not be disadvantaged only because they do not have the socioeconomic means or access to experience the relevant popular culture touchstones.

Revision 1r1 - 16 Oct 2014 - 16:54:02 - ChrisWoller
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