If you’re anything like me, you might not have heard about torrenting until just recently. Or, you might not have heard about it at all. But, most likely, you do remember the hip multimillionaire Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, in The Social Network. Sean Parker was the co-founder of Napster, which The New York Times describes as a program that enabled users to “download thousands upon thousands of songs, then pass them on to friends or create albums of their own on compact discs.” Of course, Napster was shut down for copyright infringement, but websites similar to it remained under the general name of “torrenting.” With a torrent file, a user receives pieces of metadata which then release information about how to gain access to actual content from other users. The whole idea behind torrenting is that it’s a collaborative process and each user should become interdependent with each other user, as well as his or her computer. So, now the question is, how is torrenting affecting the striving artists and the established ones? Some argue that pirating is stealing, and stealing is bad, no matter what. But things aren’t so simple.
The theory of American copyright laws is that when artists create music or art, they will have a proprietary right to profit from their creation. If anyone reproduces or copies those creations, the artist will get some money back for having permitted other people to enjoy that usage. Along with that comes the idea that if artists think that their intellectual property isn’t going to be protected then they won’t create anything.Thus, artists will suffer because of the inability to safely produce art, and society will suffer from a paucity of art.
The reality of our globalized world is that all these torrenting sites—ThePirateBay, ExtraTorrent, Torrent Reactor—actually enable a wider spread and public access to art and music. Indeed, media theorist Steven Johnson recently noted on NPR that artists’ overall compensation has risen, and not declined within the last decade because of this wider diffusion of art. While it’s true that artists get much less from selling copies of their work, the ample distribution of their product makes them much more in demand. With music, artists might get less on the number of copies of music sold but more on live concerts. Tickets to live concerts have consequently become more pricey. With movies, the pirated download may enhance the likelihood of a person going to see the next big movie of that same brand. If you have access to free content, it will increase the odds of you buying the premium content.
The opposition to torrenting comes from the denial of a wider phenomenon going on concerning how the digital age produces and consumes products. Individuals want more and more access to freedom. Yet, as some say, freedom never comes free.
I now look back on the first time I saw The Social Network, which actually wasn’t in a movie theater, but on my laptop, in my bedroom. Was I hurting the career of an artist who was “losing” income from my “illegal” streaming? Or was I contributing to the ultimate success of the movie? I choose to believe that I’m just a tiny piece of “metadata” in a larger redefinition of artistic experience.