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Digital Abundance: Piracy, Open Access, and the Challenge to Capitalism

Digital Abundance: Piracy, Open Access, and the Challenge to Capitalism

By Adam Simpson

For $1.29 you can purchase a digital copy of Katy Perry’s Roar on Google Play. But why would you? Other Perry fans, henceforth referred to as KatyCats, have benevolently elected to upload the track to a torrenting site where it is now available via “piracy” free of charge. Of course, you might think Perry, her songwriters, her producers, etc., are all entitled to a cut of the action--after all you’re no pirate. But given the expansion of the digital world and the inherent abundance of such commodities, you may nonetheless be sailing against the tide.

By the end of 2016, global internet traffic per year will reach the rate of 1.1 zettabytes. Most people are familiar with gigabytes, a thousand of which make a terabyte, a thousand of which make a petabyte, then exabyte, then zettabyte. For perspective, LiveScience explains that 1 zettabyte is equivalent to 36,000 years of high definition video--or for our purposes 286 trillion copies of Katy Perry’s Roar. Though that first zettabyte was the hardest, by 2019 global internet traffic will reach 2 zettabytes per year. It’s a scale of information that’s difficult to conceptualize.

There are a few attempts at stopping piracy, but they rely on holding Internet Service Providers (ISPs) responsible for their customers activities or forcing them to alienate those same customers. In any event, such efforts necessitate greater surveillance of private online activities.  The problem with these strategies is that they would only encourage further entrepreneurship in ways of concealing IP addresses from ISPs. Beyond that natural competition, it will be difficult to track 2 zettabytes of internet traffic. The most effective strategy in countering piracy has been the broadening access and improving service. For no more than $11.99 per month Netflix grants you access to thousands of movies and TV series. For music, there’s Pandora and Spotify; for videogames, there’s Steam. It’s more convenient and safer than piracy, but I’m skeptical such models can continuously sustain themselves by imposing scarcity onto this infinite supply.

As Netflix competes with Hulu, HBO GO, Crackle, Comcast onDemand, and other platforms, this might drive down prices on what is nearly an infinite supply of media content. Using paywalls to impose scarcity on the digital marketplace doesn’t seem likely to work in the long-run. Crackle is completely free—so long as you can stand the ads and the limited, mostly dated catalog—but at the end of the day all digital platforms compete with piracy’s all-too tempting price of $0--and that’s not a winning battle.

Beyond Katy Perry’s 2013 smash hit or the latest Netflix drama, what is today considered academia's piracy may soon be legitimized. The European Union’s science Chief Carlos Moedas intends to make all publicly funded scientific research completely free to access by 2020. For the academic industry, this is a massive shift. Academic works have been the subject of open access disputes for some time as well. Aaron Swartz, the famed open-access advocate, was indicted in 2011 for using a MIT guest log-in to acquire numerous papers from behind the JSTOR paywall. Carrying on where he left off Alexandra Elbakyan, a graduate student in Kazakhstan, founded Sci-Hub, which hosts works from scientific and academic journals for free.

Further still, what happens when the digital becomes tangible? David Flanders called 3D printing the century’s most disruptive technology. In an age of exponential change that might sound bold, but it’s still a good bet. There is an open source component to the 3D printing movement that undermines monetization. Consider the RepRap: it’s an open source 3D printer that can almost entirely print another RepRap. There’s even a community on reddit committed to “printing it forward,” whereby users with 3d printers help out their peers by printing pieces and parts free of charge. Once they have their printer up and running their expected to contribute just as freely to the community. Adrian Bowyer, the engineer behind RepRap, is all-too happy about this. Though it may skew our traditional conceptions of innovation and production, this is exactly what Bowyer had in mind when he designed RepRap. Though the RepRap may not be the bleeding edge of 3D printing, the spirit of this open source community isn’t going anywhere, and as the technology gets cheaper and more advanced it naturally follows that the capacity of self-replicating 3D printers will follow along with it--and this says nothing of the boundless open source schematics available to those who own 3D printers.

So what is to be done? For now, numerous industries appear determined to protect the unprotectable scarcity of those 1s and 0s that make up their products. It’s not solely because of a reactionary, profit-centric greed (except probably for record companies). We’re dealing with digital, practically infinite commodities with capitalist system that regardless of it's benefits and faults is proving to be an analog frame of reference. Though more arguments for digital protectionism are sure to dominate conversations about these issues, it’s imperative that we begin seeking radical modifications to our current system. Crowdfunding models like Kickstarter and Patreon show much potential, particularly for artists, but this seems more like a stopgap than a solution. The challenges of digital abundance potentially suggests only further evidence for a universal basic income.

Under such a scheme, artists are not made beggars because people freely enjoy their music, their films, or otherwise. Neither are the designers whose 3D printing schematics are made open source. Neither are academics whose scientific breakthroughs are made accessible to anyone who is interested. The aforementioned disruptions don’t have to be problems at all. Combined with a basic income solution, digital abundance could be realized not as an economic crisis that guarantees upheaval and beggary but rather as a tremendous social opportunity that promises individual creativity and collaborative innovation.

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