The enemy of my enemy

Yesterday a huge file sharing site, “,” was taken offline due to a criminal conspiracy indictment. Do the copyright wars have a new martyr? At first glance, maybe! Everybody gets to blame their favorite villain: the evil media industry, the draconian federal government, or both. It becomes a political a Rorschach Test. Ultimately, the fix is either upending the foundations of market capitalism, or destroying the power of the state to dismantle the intellectual property regime. (I frequently start laying out my own political arguments whenever I write a sentence like that, then carefully backspace over them and sip rye until the temptation subsides.)

But. But. But. Here’s the thing. Megaupload—like the late Kazaa and LimeWire—makes an even worse martyr in the copyright wars than Jack Kevorkian did in the debate over assisted suicide. The indictment lays out the case against them. Their business model was built around getting “popular files” uploaded that would be downloaded repeatedly, thus showing ads to non-premium subscribers—and rewarding premium subscribers who provided those popular files. The more often a file was downloaded, the more money Mega got. Show of hands: who thinks the files that brought in the big bucks were home videos of cats?

Ars Technica observed that the indictment is “full of strange non-sequiturs,” and the RIAA (and MPAA) had a collective hatred for Megaupload that bordered on the pathological, which tends to engender sympathy from the Internet at large given that the RIAA and MPAA together have a higher douchebag quotient than a Los Angeles BMW dealership. But seriously, folks. The site’s owners sent email to one another with lines like, “Hope YouTube is not implementing a fraud detection system right now” and attachments showing reward payments to users for uploading “10+ Full popular DVD rips, a few small porn movies, some software with keygenerators (warez).” In 2007, Megaupload was booted out of Google AdSense for having “numerous pages” with links to “copyrighted content” according to the indictment.

And if that’s not enough, let’s just quote Megaupload CTO Mathias Ortmann talking about their business: “We’re not pirates, we’re just providing shipping services to pirates.”

I don’t want to give the impression I think all—or even most—copyright actions are wise, let alone effective. Trade groups purposefully overstate losses and dominate policy discussions with FUD—arguably, even the term “piracy” is using the terms they define. (It’s a world of stupid to equate torrenting Game of Thrones with armed theft and murder on the high seas.) People who really just want easily-reproducible shit for free will always find a way to get it, and any publisher is far better off working on ways to make sure that customers can legally get what they want as easily as possible with the fewest restrictions. That should be the lesson that media moguls take away from iTunes, but to them the lesson is, “make sure all digital video content outlets are crippled in some way and we won’t have another iTunes.” If we think of hardline copyright proponents as a bunch of assclowns, they have nobody to blame for that but themselves.

Yet being reflexively against something based on its supporters is just as nutty as its inverse. (“The RIAA certified my favorite CD as gold? Those assholes! I’m going to go break it, right now!”) We’re not talking about one of those “RIAA sues deaf Buddhist nun in monastery with no electricity for $9.8 million” cases here. And while I don’t doubt that thousands of legitimate users of Megaupload are genuinely shafted by this outcome, if the best restaurant in town turns out to be a mob front, hundreds of innocent diners are going to be denied that terrific Penne Arrabiata. So it goes.

There are a lot of stories out there which are genuine examples of terrible government overreach and/or the evils of the current copyright system. Megaupload’s story is not one of them. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is not a universal truth—and sometimes it puts you in the company of pretty crappy friends.

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