You can find absolutely every medium of popular culture on the Internet for free. TV shows. Movies that are still playing in theaters. The entire Beatles back catalogue. Even illegal videogame downloads are trending upwards. You don’t hear about people illegally downloading books, possibly because no one curbstomps the literary industry while it’s suffering from perpetual economic decline, more likely because most people don’t read books anymore. Because music files are smaller than movies and TV shows, the music industry was attacked by the Internet first, leading to lawsuits against websites and dead grandfathers.
You could argue that the music industry eventually came to their senses, working with companies like iTunes and Rhapsody to develop new models of making money. You could also point out that iTunes charges a pittance, that subscription models aren’t necessarily proven to make very much money, and that — as Chuck Klosterman recently argued in Grantland — “recorded music no longer has monetary value.”
The story of what happened to the music industry is a complicated, cautionary tale — it’s not entirely clear what lesson to learn from the story, except to note philosophically (and stupidly) that boy, the Internet sure is changing everything. This week, the FBI cracked down on Megaupload, a website which claimed to do nothing more than give users the opportunity to exchange files over the Internet. And, well, if those files happened to be episodes of Breaking Bad or a pirated HD copy of Sucker Punch, then they couldn’t control that.
Everyone has a loud and profound opinion about the demise of Megaupload. Talking about copyright is always tricky. Throughout American history, copyright law has been used to defend artists. It has also been used by horrible, soulless businesspeople to crush technological innovation and individual creativity. But I want to ask a more basic question: Does the shutdown of Megaupload even matter?
There are an estimated 20 billion other sites on the Web that offer the same services. (If you don’t believe me, just scan through the comment board on our Megaupload post.) Supposedly, Megaupload has already launched under a new name. The FBI and the major Hollywood studios might consider it a success when they shut down one website, but there will always be savvy foreigners ready to use the tangled web of international copyright laws to launch a file-sharing website.
More importantly, there is an entire generation of young people around the world who have grown up in a world where our frail old notions of TV and movie viewership are meaningless. A typical college freshman has had a DVR since fifth grade. A badass college freshman whose parents didn’t set boundaries on their Internet usage has probably been downloading movies illegally since kindergarten. In the long run, Hollywood clearly sees this trend as the end of the movie-TV industry. More likely, the pop culture industry will become a tiered system — similar, in a sense, to the difference between college sports and professional sports. Or it could just mean that, in order to capitalize on all those viewers who download TV shows illegally, TV will ramp up product placement, which means characters on television will constantly talk about how much they love Subway sandwiches.
Fellow Internet citizens, do you honestly think that the shutdown of sites like Megaupload even matters in the long run? Or are the government and the major media corporations fighting an uphill battle against their own future?
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