Free or not free?

Lately I’ve been reading debates about challenges to internet freedom. While the threat that the US Government could potentially shut down what they see as problematic websites has been headed off at the pass meanwhile, a new debate has arisen. This one is about free file sharing.

Yes, I know the debate isn’t itself new – anyone remember the furore over Napster? – but now file sharing company Megaupload is facing charges for a crime that doesn’t technically exist.

As a writer, I would of course prefer it if people paid to read my books. But equally I have chosen to release some of my work for free. Arguably people who share stuff I’ve created without my permission are stealing it. However, is this really all that different from what most of us do in the real world? If we read a book we enjoy, we’re keen to pass our copy on to friends and family for them to read, too. Provided, of course, they give it back to us when they’re finished. I know years ago I happily copied friends’ records onto C-60, or C-90 cassette tapes, or record my favourite radio programmes (John Peel, RIP). None of which deterred me from also spending most of my pocket money, and a good chunk of my earnings when I started working, on records, books, the cinema and so on. But a borrowed book led me to many writers whose other books I shelled out my hard earned bucks for. Ditto music artists.

It’s a complex issue, I admit. If I likened myself to a builder, or a plumber, or an office worker, the ability to feed myself and family depends on people paying for my services. I would be rightly aggrieved if someone refused to pay me. In one sense if your work is creativity (musician, actor, writer) you should be accorded the same respect. But many creative people, some of whom have gone on record, see the file sharing thing as a type of marketing for their work.

There are pros and cons both sides of the argument. But, as far as the latest anti authoritarian campaign suggests, I can’t support their tactic of demanding that people stop buying books, CDs or going to the cinema for one day. Those who feel they have a God given right to take stuff for free have no right, in my view, to demand that people who chose to support creative artists add fuel to the fire by not paying for something they value.

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