Piracy: The New Sleepover

The moral questions regarding piracy (or file-sharing, as its practitioners like to call it) don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Hardly a day passes without some new article surfacing, written from the perspective of a struggling artist, an industry insider, a “scene group” (nerds who rip movies), or countless others. The arguments are usually rather predictable – depending on which side is being argued, pirates are either swashbuckling Robin-Hoods or sneaky communists.

I’m not interested in adding to this cacophony of opinions, so I’ll instead propose a simple thought experiment, which seems to render the whole debate obsolete:

Let’s imagine we’re in the future. The date isn’t important, let’s just assume that we’re in whatever year fully-immersive virtual reality goes mainstream. This future world is basically the Matrix, without evil scheming robots. People can leave the virtual “world” whenever they want to, but judging by how much time we already spend online this might not happen too often. In any case, the point is that we’re suddenly free to experience life without spatial limitations (up to the speed of light, of course). Optimistic folks might assume that this would also mean freedom from poverty, war, and unhappiness, but we don’t even need to go that far. In a world where virtual interaction is simply a social norm, we’d all have hundreds of online “digital” friends, along with whoever we still hang out with in the fleshy world. Because the virtual world would be totally immersive, the distinction between the two “kinds” of friends would start to become meaningless.

If, at this point, it is still legal for our daughters to stay up all night, watching John Hughes movies at their friends’ houses, a reasonable court could easily decide that this same activity should be perfectly fine in the virtual space; those “digital” friends should not be treated differently in the eyes of the law.

Now, the trouble is obvious: how can a court even qualitatively separate “normal” piracy from typical and legal interactions between friends? We’d need either a new “Jim Crow” law segregating real and virtual friendships, or a sweeping ban on consumption of other peoples’ media. In America, both of these situations seem laughably impossible.

This thought experiment uses the idea of “immersive” cyberspace to highlight the absurdity of the situation, but the exact same phenomenon is already happening in a cruder form. All over the world, digital communities are popping up, full of usually anonymous but often genuine friends who share media amongst themselves. Who is going to stop them?

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