Megaupload martyrdom sparks crisis in the faith of file-sharing

What’s mine is yours (until they break down the doors). ryancr

Latest reports suggest all of the data on seized file storage website Megaupload – legal or illegal – could be erased as soon as Thursday.

Clearly it’s not great news for the site’s founder Kim Dotcom (Kim Schmitz) and colleagues, who are accused of copyright infringement to the value of US$500 million. If they’re found guilty they could receive a prison sentence of 20 years.

But what about the 50 million people who have used Megaupload’s services, many of them perfectly legally? What will become of them?

Copping it or Kopism?

The world’s newest religion is “Kopimism”, which won official government recognition in Sweden earlier this month.

Adherents worship no deity, nor do they have any concept of an afterlife. The defining feature of this faith is a belief system in copying, pure and simple, with the doctrine of file-sharing reigning supreme as a positive value.

This may seem like an offbeat approach to securing a future legal loophole of sorts, but it’s also an indicator of a seismic shift in the customs of contemporary pop culture. Rising tides of consumers have become the new hunter-gatherers of entertainment; they forage for sustenance through digital conduits such as BitTorrent.

Such cyberlockers have been in great demand but the demise of Megaupload has resulted in a cyberlocker implosion. Megaupload was the most popular of these sites with its user base of roughly 50 million.

In its wake, competitors such as FileSonic and Fileserve have toned down their operations by suspending file-sharing activities across the board and only permitting uploading and downloading of content to registered individual users.

Stuck on you

Megaupload was the glue binding many music blogs that provided niche forums to aficionados of film music and show tunes, among other non-mainstream genres. Links to music content in cyberlockers (more often than not copyrighted material) were posted on blogs, at times provoking passionate critical discussion.

In the case of film music, much of the content trafficked was out-of-print CDs and LPs, the latter lovingly digitised for posterity by owners who wished others to experience their joy in this oft-ignored artform.

Film music blogs were peppered with altruistic uploaders who viewed themselves as latter-day Robin Hoods of the cultural set: robbing from the “rich” (music/film companies who refused to release their motion picture soundtrack back-catalogues for sale on dubious economic grounds) to give to the “poor” (in this case, film music fans and allied spirits who would otherwise be denied these aural gems).

Megaupload was a watering-hole that created a musical oasis in many pockets of the blogosphere. Now the well has dried up, those who drank from it may very well be experiencing something, at least in the metaphorical sense, that is akin to the five stages of grief observed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal work, On Death and Dying:

  1. Denial (“The closure of Megaupload is only a temporary setback and it will be back.”)
  2. Anger (“%$&#! I’ve lost over 500 files!”)
  3. Bargaining (“Perhaps I’ll try another file-sharing service? Oh, no! Filesonic doesn’t work for me. Something else?”)
  4. Depression (“What’s the point? I think I’ll take a few weeks off from file-sharing and see what happens.”)
  5. Acceptance (“At least I still have my good old CD/LP collection to fall back on.”).

Rumblings from the blogosphere would indicate the folding of Megaupload has generated a mini-wave of scepticism about the security of cloud storage more broadly. Is the new reality an induced feeling that you have to back-up your back-ups ad infinitum?

Professor Peter Lunenfeld from the University of California, Los Angeles is less sympathetic to the downloading phenomenon in society. In an article for New Scientist, he argued that file-sharing is leading to “cultural diabetes” where consumers are gorging on a glut of entertainment without producing anything practical in return.

Kim Dotcom is in big trouble. MartandAlexander

Lunenfeld’s thesis is that uploading is good due to its pro-active quality, while downloading is bad on account of its passive essence. Downloading rapidly crosses the line from collecting to accumulating. Gigabytes of TV episodes, films and musical content become the storage of a hoarder who just might find it difficult to find time to experience it all.

Get me the doctor

A closing parable. In the TV canon of Doctor Who there exist quite a few episodes for which there are no available film or videotape copies. This is due to the BBC shedding portions of their archive in the past to reclaim space. The story may be apocryphal but some episodes from the 1970s run were actually recovered because an American had produced off-air colour videotape copies for a British fan.

These were recovered in the 1990s and partially restored in quality for their re-entry into the archives. Technically speaking, international copyright law may have been broken in this instance but the greater good was served to Doctor Who fandom (and the BBC) by discovery of these modest treasures that were once thought to be lost.

Was this a case of fruit of the poisonous tree? We are all patently aware of intellectual property issues in the digital age from a legal perspective, bombarded with ads and edicts and so forth.

But the ethics of this downloading epoch, redolent with dilemmas as it is, are still open to interpretation and need to be debated in the public domain.