Are we all thieves? Is stealing natural? According to Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, it is.
Responding to Viacom Inc. (NYSE: VIA)'s ongoing billion-dollar lawsuit against YouTube Inc. , Arrington concurred with Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) (YouTube’s parent) that Viacom’s legal action “threatens” the Internet. I don’t know about the Internet, but Arrington’s position certainly threatens our culture.
Yes, that’s right. Uber-blogger Arrington -- who in late April Time magazine included in its 2008 list of 100 Most Influential People in the World -- really uttered this dismal bit of sophistry. Sounding like a remix of French anti-private property anarchist Pierre-Joseph “property is theft” Proudon, Arrington argued on TechCrunch that the time has come to “rethink copyright laws” because “it’s bad to criminalize natural behavior.”
Arrington’s stance, of course, epitomizes the permissive attitude about intellectual property that has already destroyed the music business and is now threatening to kill the holy trinity that includes Hollywood, the television industry, and the book trade.
In 1999, when Napster first assaulted the recorded music industry with its peer-to-peer technology, we heard similarly open-minded nonsense from Web 1.0 moguls like MP3.com founder Michael Robertson and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Almost 10 years later, the catastrophic consequences of Napster’s mass piracy are all too tragically evident. In 1997, global recorded music sales were $45 billion. By next year, it is estimated that they will have fallen to around $23 billion -- an almost 50 percent drop in sales in a little more than a single decade.
Might all of this have something to do with the fact that peer-to-peer technology essentially legalized the online theft of music? And might it also be that street-corner demagogues have convinced the easy-to-seduce online crowd into thinking that it is perfectly natural to borrow other people’s property (even if the owners haven’t actually given them permission to do so)?
Arrington argues that the problem of grand online larceny lies with the law. But Arrington -- who, ironically, used to be an intellectual property lawyer -- is scapegoating the very institution that most effectively protects private property.
The real problem is with us and not the law. The truth, of course, is that the theft of digital content is no more “natural” than holding up little old ladies on street-corners or crashing civilian airliners into tall buildings. And it’s the responsibility of thought-leaders like Arrington to use their privileged positions to educate the innocent about the evils of digital thievery.
By stating his opposition to criminalizing "natural behavior," Arrington is not only legitimizing online theft, but he is also undermining the credibility of entertainment companies, such as Hulu or Blinkbox that have invested major resources into building entirely legal Web businesses. Defending YouTube’s flagrant disregard for intellectual property laws is tantamount to justifying criminal behavior. That’s the libertarian logic of Arrington's argument.
Indeed, it appears that Arrington is openly encouraging the development of businesses that actively undermine the law. In his own words:
It’s time to rethink copyright laws, and it’s time for copyright holders to rethink their business models. The winners won’t be the companies that win or lose billion dollar lawsuits. It’ll be the companies that throw out everything that’s come before, and build new businesses around the natural behavior of people. Remove friction and win.
But I disagree. Just as we shouldn’t be rethinking laws about prostitution or drugs, there is also no need to rewrite copyright laws. Unfortunately, digital technology has made online theft risk free. The solution is not to legalize this crime, but to punish it.
We’ve got to be more aggressive about prosecuting intellectual property miscreants. Unlike Arrington, therefore, I applaud Viacom’s billion-dollar lawsuit against YouTube. Ironically, it is the law itself that remains the most efficacious weapon to make online theft more unnatural.
— Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley author, broadcaster, and entrepreneur