Digital File Sharing, the Legitimization of Theft, and its Impact on Photography - William Toti

When I was a boy, the only commercially available medium for purchasing music was the record album. If a friend wanted to borrow an album from me, I might let him, but if he didn’t return it, we would inevitably “have words.”

The evolution of music into digital formats, along with the concurrent development of the internet, meant the death (or nearly so) of physical media like compact discs and LPs. People were able to “rip” their physical media onto their computer, and then “share” that music with friends over the internet.

Of course, this “sharing” mechanism wasn’t really sharing at all because of two important characteristics: (1) you weren’t actually loaning the music to your friends, you were providing them another copy of the music track, and (2) this method allowed you to provide copies of music to millions of your closest friends, obviating the need for any of them to actually purchase the track, eliminating millions of potential sales of that track, thereby nearly destroying the industry that allowed such music to be produced in the first place. In that regard, it was a parasitic theft-dynamic that threatened to kill the “host.”

The solution to this problem, as provided by the digital recording industry, was to lower the price of music so significantly as to make it easier to pay the pennies necessary to purchase a track, than it was to steal the song. This catastrophically lowered the intrinsic value of a musical track. Although it kept the studios somewhat viable, allowing them to limp by on life support, the pennies provided per track were not enough to allow the musicians and bands who made that music to actually make a living plying their craft.

This also drove a commoditization of music, where every track, regardless of how good or bad, was set at essentially the same price. Instead of the free market forces driving the value of music, the theft-dynamic was now driving the value of a track. The unstated motive force was, “if you don’t give it to us cheap, we will simply steal it.” And very few in our society agitated about what was happening.

Imagine if this theft-dynamic were applied to the food industry: some industry executive telling the chef of a 5-star restaurant that he had to charge McDonald’s prices in order for his food to sell, otherwise people would just steal it. Unimaginable? That is exactly what is happening in the digital world these days.

Suddenly musicians found themselves back in the days of the 1920s juke joints where they would almost literally have to play for food. Other than within the rarified air of the 1%, the “anointed music artists” (mostly in pop and hip-hop), any hope of actually raising a family on the wage of a musician was a fantasy. In short, this theft-dynamic destroyed the middle class of music, leaving only the very rich and the very poor.

My son, a professional drummer for more than four years, suffered from this effect personally, and saw other egregious examples first-hand. He would sometimes open for bands that had gold records in their catalog, but who were quite literally sleeping on the floors of their fans because they could not afford (nor would their record label provide for) hotel rooms on tour. There just wasn’t enough money being made any more. (Insert shameless plug here: if you want to check out his current band “Fives,” see www.fivesband.com )

The theft-dynamic started with the child-culture of “file sharing” almost 20 years ago. But this “sharing” wasn’t really sharing, it was stealing, and it essentially legitimized theft. With no adult supervision or moral compass guiding those child-bandits, an entire industry was effectively destroyed.

The kids of that era are now adults, and sadly the dynamic as it pertains to the music industry has metastasized to other (perhaps all other) digital media. Anything that can be digitized is vulnerable to theft. The written word. Works of art. Motion pictures. And, most relevant to me, photographs.

Because screen capture technology allows anyone with the ability to view an image to steal it, sadly, many people do. This has led to the deconstruction of the world of professional photography. Many famous and gifted photographic artists, who could once eke out a living by licensing and selling their images, must now revert to alternative means, mostly teaching workshops, to pay the mortgage. There is certainly nothing wrong with teaching workshops, but I’m certain that wasn’t what they had in mind when their creative instincts first drew them to the medium. And every hour spent teaching is an hour where they are not creating.

Even less famous photographers like me are affected. An application called “Tineye” allows one to search the web for their images, and I have found several of my images used extensively, without compensation or permission, all over the internet. One online store was reproducing my images on coffee mugs. Another was selling reproductions of my prints outright. A few online magazines were using my images without permission or citation.

When I asked for advice from a well known, established landscape photographer (one of my mentors), his response was, “This is the world of today. You can’t stop it. You have to learn to make peace with it or it will drive you crazy.” (I could just see my Italian cousins throw up their hands in stoic Italian fashion and say, “Eh! What can you do?”)

Is this yet another parasitic theft-dynamic that will eventually kill the host? Is it resulting in another reduction of intrinsic value, a commoditization, of this art? Will legitimized theft destroy photography’s middle class too?

If my mentor is right, not only is my attempt to make a living by means of my images futile, but the entire photographic art industry is effectively dead.

Perhaps so. Perhaps it’s already happened.

But I’m an optimist. I believe in the intrinsic good of people. I believe if we impose something like a “moral calibration,” and reassert the definition of theft, we can recover from this blight.

We evolved into this world of moral ambiguity. I hope and believe we can evolve out of it.



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