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January 26, 2015

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Nothing is free, even on the Internet

The Internet is free.


Those of us who are struggling in the media business have been hearing those words, to our everlasting chagrin, ever since readership of the printed paper started to nosedive and viewership of mobile phones, iPads, computers and the like started skyrocketing.

As if that wasn’t enough, the global economic meltdown and ensuing depressing recession has made it abundantly clear that if a democracy, which is dependent on its citizens having credible information upon which they can make decisions, is to survive then the news industry — or whatever the next iteration turns out to be — better figure out a way to get paid.

I think about this challenge every day and have a building full of energetic, brilliant and youthful people trying their best to create the new model for the 21st century that will provide the kind of credible news and information which will enrich our daily lives and which will better inform our actions at the ballot box.

I say all this in the context of the most recent demonstration of the power of the Internet that took place a few days ago when Google and other major players decided to call their troops to action over impending bills in Congress which was expected to protect the copyrights and work product of, especially, American writers, filmmakers and other artists whose work is being stolen on an hourly basis.

Much like the mobile phone messages managed to assemble tens of thousands in the public squares of the Arab Middle East to topple governments so, too, did Google and the others call to action hundreds and thousands of people worried about the Internet. Due, in part, to the outrage and, in greater part, to the realization that the pending bill needed some more work, congressional leaders pulled the legislation from consideration to make necessary changes.

The danger I see in this latest show of Internet strength is that many people may take away from this action the belief that the Internet really is free. Because it is not!

There is clearly a common desire to ensure that whatever can be dreamed can be delivered via the Internet. And, in that sense, developers, technologists and content creators need to be free to experiment without undue interference from government. I think most people will agree with that.

But, it would be foolish to base that willingness to foster innovation and creativity on the notion that the Internet is free because everything I have learned — which I admit is very little when it comes to the digital world — tells me the Internet and its relatives are far from free. And if we aren’t careful, it could get a lot more expensive.

To try to understand why there still is nothing free, not even lunch, let’s focus solely on the reasons for the latest effort by Congress to protect content.

The folks who bring us movies have a problem. They spend small fortunes making those movies so that we can enjoy them in theaters, on our computers, on DVDs and on any number of other devices. And we have always demonstrated our willingness to pay for that content because we understand that actors, directors, cameramen and catering services do not work for free. It is through our ticket prices, rental payments and Internet access charges that we help pay for the movies and, through them, the salaries and benefits of the people who made them.

Here is where the Internet comes into play, especially those search engine companies and others who have profit motives of their own — motives which often conflict with those of the people who make the movies. In short, there are people out there who spend their days and nights figuring out how to steal the movies and there are Internet sites, like Google for example, that are only too willing to search them out and direct their customers to them. That is when the stolen content is sold or rented at a fraction of the cost, and that is where the Internet fails.

The legislation that Congress was going to take up was designed to prevent the theft of those movies and punish those who participate in that thievery, just as if the thieves had walked into the movie theaters and stolen the film or found a way to have stolen the tickets for admission. When Google and the others protested, they did so in typical digital fashion. In less than 140 characters, they said the Internet is free and that told the entire story.

But, of course, it didn’t. Life is far too complicated to tell the story in less than 140 characters or in any other kind of digital shorthand. People need to know that if they allow an Internet site in China or elsewhere to steal content and sell it for pennies on the dollar that somewhere along the line someone else will have to make up the shortfall.

In this case, it would be the father of four who wanted to take his kids to the movies. What might have been $5 or $6 a ticket will now be $10 or $20 a ticket because of the theft and losses caused by an Internet site that cared not one whit about such things as fair payment and social norms. The Internet may have been “free” for the person searching Google for a discounted movie site but I can assure you that the father of four paid dearly to take his children to the movies.

There are hundreds of other examples of why the Internet really isn’t free. Have you looked at your Internet access charges lately? Your FedEx charges? Your credit card purchases that were easily made online rather than going to a store?

The point is that Google should be just as interested as Congress in preventing content piracy. But in trying to protect its own financial interests — it puts ads around those searches you know — Google may have spurred a generation of users to action in the false belief that the Internet is free.

It is not. Someone always pays for what others get for nothing. And all of us pay when someone steals.

Congress is supposed to pass laws to protect us from such excesses.

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  1. Respectfully, Mr.Greenspun, I agree with you, that nothing is free, all things come with a price that SOMEONE PAYS. And there is no doubt, that the folks who produce goods, are entitled to their compensation.

    God made the lawyers and courts to do battle on thievery. If anything, the pending legislation needs to clearly make distinctions, that stealing protected goods is subject to legal prosecution and dire consequences (that we best be prepared to back up!).

    SOPA and PIPA had huge issues: the government basically setting up an infrastructure to censor internet, to shut down a website without any court intervention/hearing, basically having a free reign in social media. That is clearly over-reaching into the freedom of the internet and our liberties, which are protected under the Constitution.

    Perhaps the NEXT round of this, will be presented more concisely, and not be a major threat to those who utilize the internet.

    The United States needs to put China on notice about the continuing UNfair practices, that it will not be tolerated. Time to lessen our dependence on China. Also hackers throughout the World.

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. Most Piracy problems will be solved by technology and providing consumers an easy and reasonable way to purchase their products. I cite ITunes as an example. The Media Corporations were just lazily looking for a fast, easy and cheap way to solve their problem by implementing draconian chinese style censorship.
    I'd also like to point out that Newspapers in general serve as little more than Bird Cage liners. When I purchase a newspaper I want to know something New, most of which can only be done by Investigative journalism. Which is very unlikely with a business model focused on selling ads.

  3. I hate to burst Mr. Greenspun's bubble, but the internet WAS designed to be a way to share scientific information amongst colleagues, students, and the entire education community FOR FREE. It was media outlets and business types that found a way to MAKE IT FOR PROFIT. I really think that the Internet has changed driven by the $$$ and not by need. We need the information sharing and not sandwiched in between a myriad of advertisements and bogus surveys designed to farm your email address so you can further be bombarded by advertisements and scams.

    I have NEVER downloaded a pirated movie or single song without paying my $.99, and most of the people I know have not. If you are a theater-goer, you will not skip the big screen to watch a pirated movie on a computer screen, thereby NOT cutting into the media outlets profit margin. I go to the theater to see a movie I like and if I really like it, will buy the DVD and add it to my collection. For those movies that don't make the have to see on the big screen list, will wait for the release on pay per view or DVD and buy it.

    I think there really needs to be a second internet for science and the arts. Run by scholars, academicians, and scientist in both the public and private sectors. We through our tax dollars and tuition expenses have paid for the science based computer networks, and THAT information is necessary to keep real science alive (something that the U.S. is lagging behind the other nations in).

    So you (Mr. Greenspun) think that the product you bring is worth the cost of admission, then start your own net, fill it up with advertising (all are scams) and leave the original internet to those that have spent years in collaborative science efforts.

  4. ...AND

    why should media and big business think that the high-speed backbones of the internet are theirs to use for free and profit. It was organizations like JPL, NASA, NSF, USGS that got it up and running. They (the people Mr. Greenspun is so vehemently protecting the right to make a buck), did not participate in the cost of construction, but sure use the access points. So you enjoy the bandwidth tools that you have acquired for the cost of access, but think that you should be paid for what you put on the net. BS.....

  5. While the Internet as a system itself is not monetarily free (it does cost money to power fiber optics & switches, let alone pay for the parts and maintenance on them), it is however for the most part free of biased opinion. Las Vegas itself serving as a prime example. The most relevant being this column itself. Whenever you yourself Mr. Greenspun don't want anyone to challenge your opinions, I've noticed how you conveniently omit the option for readers to leave comments. You're not alone on that however, Mark and Mercedes on 94.1 are just as guilty when it came to a debate on then-Governor Gibbon's marriage and the overwhelming majority of callers disagreed with them, they simply closed all phone lines and declared that everyone listening was wrong and promptly changed the subject. Overall the list goes on and on with ways that free speech and public opinions have been silenced in Las Vegas in order to maintain profitability of corporate interests. From the deleting of omission of comments on sites such as this, to the fact that there is still not a Public Access Television station to host and spread peoples' opinions. Of course that too is a thread being that Greenspun owns interest in Cox Communications and doesn't want competition. So the cop-out was to turn it over for Governmental programming. The same corrupt government that got caught up in Operation G-Sting and helped ruin this city. How might things have turned out if people such as you 14 years ago allowed the voice of public concern to speak out against this rising housing bubble? The same bubble that resulted in an economic collapse and "brain-drain" that forced the most talented citizens to exit the valley and leave behind such a vast unemployable workforce good for nothing but unskilled labor?

    Perhaps things would have been different had we have been allowed to speak out then. Perhaps we could have ejected those officials before they even committed their crimes, and could have secured our city had people in your position allowed the community to speak rather than silencing us and just letting another GLVAR mouthpiece spoon-feed lies that drove the city into the ground.

    No, Mr. Greenspun, the Internet IS "Free". Not monetarily in the way that you feel, but free from the corporate and personal bias of people like you. The internet doesn't foster piracy that kills movies: It's rapid communication that enables movie goers to tweet to all of their friends that a film is not worth watching before it even ends, and thus drives away those ticket sales from the second showing before it even begins. Likewise people are tired of biased journalism that doesn't give full disclosure that either omits or ignores stories all together that conflict with it's other interests. That's why circulation is down: We're fed up with you and found a better source. You just need to adapt to our needs.

  6. Respectfully, Mr.Greenspun went for the easy points. Failing like a good liberal, to point out that these bills were written by the same people who brought us ObamaCare. The "we need to pass it to know what's in it" people. That alone is worthy of our scorn.

    But more importantly, it put the power of the legal system in the hands of the Hollywood people. The same people who fought with Steve Jobs on iTunes. They thought his system was not fair to them.

    The bills gave people like Mr Greenspun the power to shut down sites like mine and other bloggers, without any real reason other than "I think he is stealing"

    Only after a costly court fight would Google be allowed to put my site back into their search engines.

    The "Guilty until proven innocent" clause of SOPA works fine in China, not in the America I grew up in.

  7. This column seems disjoint - primarily because you conflate the definitions of free (free as in beer or free as in speech), and then start some ignorant rant about Piracy/SOPA/PIPA, though I suppose if you were a tech nerd and knew how the internet infrastructure was setup, you'd be against it with the rest of us.

    First, the "free as in beer" issue.

    This website is free because you pay for it with ads. The problem is that most of the ads on this website are garbage ("One simple trick to ________" fill in the blank with whatever scam they're pushing - weight loss, car insurance, employment, whatever). I've posted it once or twice before that I'm more than willing to pay $50/yr for a "Premium Subscription" to the Las Vegas Sun website. Get rid of the garbage ads when I pay my $50 (as the other websites where I'm a subscriber also don't show me ads in lieu of my $50). I wrote up a blog post a while back listing websites I'd spend $50/yr on, this being one of them along with NY Times, Fareed Zakaria, and several tech news websites.

    Your assertion that a $5 movie ticket is now $10 because of piracy is 100% false. It is $10 for many reasons - because movies are more expensive to make (but its in 3D!), because the movie making tools are more expensive (CG), and because there are many more things to do without leaving your home. You're falling for the same BS that the sponsors of SOPA/PIPA did.

    When it comes to the movies, people are simply looking for easier ways to consume content. They don't go to movie theaters because the experience is not just awful, its downright user hostile - expensive concessions, full video ads during the breaks between movies, 15-20 minutes of pre-movie ads, teenagers using it as a place to hang out away from adult supervision to be loud, obnoixious and texting the whole time without any enforcement from the theater staff (except for the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, the most famous theater for actually enforcing patron courtesy during the movie, they also serve beer).

    Why have advertising and marketing budgets for average movies balloned so much? Its because movies now compete with a multitude of other forms of entertainment. TiVos, 100+ cable channels at home instead of just 3 or 4 broadcast channels, plus Netflix means you have tens of thousands of hours of entertainment at your fingertips, from the couch, and its not worth your time to get up and go see that mediocre movie to fill a lazy Sunday afternoon, lets just pick a movie off Netflix, or see whats on HBO or Showtime.

    (continued in the next comment as LVSun has a 3000 character limit)

  8. Now the "free as in speech" argument.

    First - piracy is wrong. That's not what we (the internet as a whole and specifically Google, Reddit, BoingBoing, etc.) is arguing.

    Just because piracy is now easier because of the internet, doesn't make it excusable to give private companies censorship and law enforcement powers, even if it appears legitimate through the rubber stamp of a judge - if no counterparty to the arguments is present, then there is no due process and it is not just. It amounts to a government-approved internet censorship like the Chinese.

    The recent findings in the YouTube/Viacom lawsuit show that the copyright holders themselves posted some videos to YouTube under various user accounts and then another arm of the company requested the video be taken down. If they cant even coordinate within their own company, how are we to expect them to be competent in enforcing their copyright?

    The unsealing of MegaUpload "MegaConspiracy" the day after the internet protests shows exactly why SOPA/PIPA isn't needed. This is the story of a company based in Hong Kong, run by people all over the world, and yet the US federal government was able to bring down the group. It might have taken two years of investigation, but this is how law enforcement works in the United States of America under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

    The MPAA/RIAA are upset this bill didn't pass because they want to circumvent the rule of law in this country and be given control over what websites are viewable in America. Beyond that, they're looking to harm or kill user-generated content (like this very comment) because of the increased liability website owners like the Las Vegas Sun would face if one of their users posted copyrighted content or even LINKED to copyrighted content from within a comment.

    The issue of giving copyright owners unilateral power is that they have already abused their current powers given to them under the DMCA. For example the case of someone sticking their own cell phone camera out of their apartment window, and putting up a video of a movie that was filming on the street outside his apartment building. He shot the video himself and owns the copyright to his footage, yet the movie company used the DMCA to take down his video, even though they didn't own the copyright to the video (and they surely cant legally prevent someone shooting video out of their own window).

    There have been a plethora of instances like this one, where companies file DMCA complaints as a quick way to take down videos from the internet that they don't own the copyright for, to get the video off the internet and out of public viewing. This is why we don't want to give people like them even more power - because they've clearly abused the power they have, and the anemic federal government hasn't punished them for abusing their power -- it is a felony to falsely submit a DMCA complaint, and I've yet to see anyone charged for doing so.

  9. The Megaupload bust proves that SOPA and PIPA were not needed to stop online privacy.

    Even more insidious is the timing - the Megaupload bust could have happened a month ago, or a year ago, but why not? Maybe the big wheels in Congress were holding back the Justice Dept bust until after their bills passed, to 'justify' their legislation. "SEE they would have said, SOPA and PIPA were necessary", but they weren't.

    RIGHTHAVEN was able to go after the SMALLEST shred of copyright infringement and pull $50-$100k out of their victims and would have succeeded had they been the true owners of the news publications.

    RIGHTHAVEN proofs that overwhelming protection from copyright infringement is possible from the smallest group of mealymouthed legal bandits making millions on mistakes.

    Copyright and Patent infringement are very well protected by the laws we now have. The owner, Kim Schmitz was arrested in New Zealand which proves that these current laws have international support.

    So what was new in SOPA and PIPA? Cloud persecution. The language in the bills was so vague that just about ANY interpretation of guilt and compensating action from those words could be pursued and upheld. The 1850's Fugitive Slave Law was more clear and better written.

    Suing individuals and small businesses and bringing them to a state of destitution for the slightest of infringements does not uphold Freedom of Speech, nor does it create a 'Free Market Economy'.

  10. Mr. Greenspun, I respect both you and your family for everything you do for our community. And for the most part, I agree with your editorial. It's the chicken and the egg problem: people pirate things because they are too expensive, and things are so expensive because people pirate them.

    I also think that the vast majority of people are willing to pay for content. I also think that the vast majority of people care about copyright law, but don't care as much for the content creators themselves. If you pirate a copy of Titanic, just how much do you hurt Leonardo diCaprio?

    When content costs better reflect their value (remember that most people are used to watching movies on cable for a monthly rate...) I think you'll see the rate of piracy drop.

  11. If there is such a large portion of the human race that thinks that supporting people who basically survive by stealing from others is acceptable, that the only thing that matters is getting a product for as little as possible by any means available, then I submit that either a) it is a part of the human condition and CAN NOT be overcome, or b) someone, either teachers or parents (or both,) has been a miserable failure when it comes to the subjects of ethics and morality.