I hope Jammie Thomas is made to pay the entire fine of US$222,000 for illegally file-sharing music she never purchased. Just this week an American court ordered Thomas, who lives in Minnesota, to pay $9,250 for each song she stole.
You might think this particular crime is not about politics. You might think it is about business, just business. But it is that kind of attitude — commodifying everything, consuming everything — that stripped institutions like newspapers and universities of their most important meanings. That is why we have now the worst, laziest, stupidest, and least effective media in the civilized world. It is why so many people view university as publicly-funded goods meant for the elite to secure status and income. Where does public discourse fit into this picture? Where does transparent, democratic governance fit? Why, if everything is about money, would we bother to create forums for public commentary, and why would we read poetry, let alone nurture the next Shakespeare?
This stealing is political in the sense that democracy and civil rights rely on a certain degree of societal sophistication. A society without culture is a gulag and we impose that spiritual prison upon ourselves when we cannot be bothered to pay the pipers who create the foundation for our quality of life (and I am not talking about quality of expenditures: I mean quality of life).
Of course Jammie, and millions of other people, don’t think of illegal copying of music (and other content) as a theft worth prosecuting. It’s only a few bucks, right? These big music companies and mega-stars don’t need the cash as much as we do. In fact, most content stealers don’t even think that far. Music is in the air, they think. Books and magazines appear out of nowhere. They don’t stop to consider the massive effort that musicians (and writers, and photographers, and filmmakers) invest in creating the content that technology makes so easy to steal.
This is all part of our culture of commodification of everything we used to find meaning in. Before the printing press, storytellers, and musicians used to be more valued simply because we had to get into a room with them in order to receive what they offered. When written language was first developed, books were created by hand and embossed with original paintings and gold. They were treasures. Singers and musicians were cherished because hearing them live was the only way to hear them at all. When they retired or died, the music ended. Now we can steal their voices and chuck them, them personally that is, into the bin. We assume that a single filch of a file won’t do them any harm. We assume that stealing the copy, which is easy to replace, will not damage the artist’s ability to produce another original.
But that is not true: Artists cannot live without money and they cannot work in an atmosphere of disrespect. They aren’t machines; insult, devalue, and demean them enough and they will either stop producing, or stop most people from accessing what they do produce. They will turn to one-of-a-kind projects, like live performances rather than recordings, or limited edition books. Those of us who used to work regularly in newspapers and magazines simply don’t work anymore (or we volunteer to write on small obscure blog sites that we suspect will eventually replace mass media).
Have you noticed? Lousy magazines, lousy pop music . . . if you aren’t old enough to remember, let me promise you that pop music and newspapers used to rock the world. Bob Dylan was political. Pete Seeger was political. And the morning paper used to turn politicians white at the roots. Those days are long gone.
So Jammie Thomas can pay the piper. Estimates indicate that she illegally shared a total of 1,702 songs and never paid a cent. In fact, Thomas ought to feel lucky. Just last spring, a Montrealer who had illegally copied textbooks was sentenced to six months in jail.
I just wish the courts had more power to punish Canadians who undermine our artists and intellectuals every time they rip a CD, or copy illegally.