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P2P, Stealing and Grokster

Copyfight’s Alan Wexelblat posts on the rhetoric of the file sharing debate, a fine topic. But the post title is “The Revenge of Sapir-Whorf,” which makes me think that the discussion misses the point. True, the content industry has tried to frame the file sharing debate in moral terms by calling P2P use “stealing.” But calling it “stealing” can’t make anyone think that it is stealing. (I.e., Sapir-Whorf doesn’t have much empirical support.) If the “stealing” rhetoric resonates with some people, it’s because there is something about P2P use that seems like, or feels like, or sounds like stealing. Maybe it’s because there are artists out there who argue that consumers have copies of their albums, but the artists haven’t been paid. Those artists may be right, or they may be misinformed, or they just may not be with the zeitgeist (or economics) of P2P, and too bad for them. But the label — “stealing” — doesn’t tell them what to think. It gives them a word to describe what they already think.

Here’s the lesson, then. The propaganda war will continue, regardless of the outcome of the Grokster case. And that war hasn’t been lost. It simply hasn’t been fought on the right terms. The task isn’t to rally around an alternative rhetoric (“file sharing doesn’t cost artists money”) but to describe P2P use in terms that resonate with our experience in a different way, and in a way in which the first term that comes to mind isn’t “stealing” (or “swapping,” or even “sharing”). Today, no one looks at librarians and says “thieves.” Making a mix-tape isn’t “robbery.” It’s a storytelling problem. Grokster needs a better story.

[Update 3/29: Corrected the spelling of Alan Wexelblat’s name.]