File-sharing and the future of publishing

Megan McArdle has recently posted a couple of excellent blog posts (here and here) on The Atlantic on the subject of illegal downloading, and where on the spectrum from file-sharing to file-stealing it really sits.

This is, of course, a thorny problem – and one that excites a great deal of passion on either side. And although music and film have borne the brunt of the assault on their rights so far, books cannot be far behind. Certainly, one leading Spanish author has already quit writing in disgust once she realised that more of her books were being downloaded illegally than being bought.

But is this a cultural problem, masquerading as a technological problem, or a technological problem masquerading as a legal one? Sadly, it is probably all three.

In essence, like the law, the argument proceeds by analogy and precedent. To what extent is the unauthorised uploading and downloading of an album like theft – that is, like taking a physical product from a retailer’s premises without paying? Or, conversely, to what extent is it like copying it onto a cassette or CD for specific a friend to hear, or buying and selling it on the second-hand market? After all, all three activities could be said to deprive the artist of income, but only one is the subject of much debate.
Continue reading