Why Digital Thieves Are Good For The Future Of Online Business; A View From The Equator In Africa

English: A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenom...

Image via Wikipedia

So from tomorrow January 18, Wikipedia will join many other websites in a blackout to protest laws being proposed in the US Congress and Senate to crackdown on online piracy.

For several hours, Wikipedia and services like Boing Boing and Reddit, will not be available.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US Congress, and Protect IP Act (PIPA) seek to punish mainly foreign-based websites that violate or help others violate U.S. copyrights.  The online community is up in arms, arguing that it will kill the free spirit of the Internet, and open a backdoor for a corporate hijack of a commons good.

News International’s Mr Rubert Murdoch, a man whose media have made fortunes stealing people’s lives, phone numbers, lives, and sorrow waded into the fight. He blasted US President Barack Obama, whose White House is lukewarm toward the legislation, and search engine giant Google.

Murdoch accused the White House of being in the employ of “Silicon Valley paymasters,” and repeated an old charge that Google was profiting from advertisements sold against pirated materials, dubbing the company a “piracy leader.”

I have sympathy both for the pirates and digital thieves on one side, and the companies and lawmakers that are trying to punish piracy on the other.

It is almost inevitable to be so conflicted, if you are looking at this sitting somewhere at The Equator in Africa.

First, the world has changed and it is no longer efficient for everyone and every country to do everything for themselves. It used to be that you couldn’t be an industrial power and serious country if you didn’t manufacture your own cars. Today we know that it is not necessary. The world is humming along happily with the Germans, East Asians, China, France, and the Americans producing most of its cars.

You don’t even have to grow your own food. There are countries whose climate, soils, and agricultural traditions make them very good farmers, and they can feed all the world’s 7 billion people. What those who don’t grow their food need is to have enough money to buy it, and the open supply lines to get it to their markets.

So it is with the online universe. Not everyone can produce something for the Internet, despite all the yak yak about crowd-sourcing and Web 2.0.

Most people are not creative enough, or are simply lazy. Others can’t be bothered, and yet more prefer a low-key existence. They are happy to be consumers and to browse, poke around, and get on with more important things in their lives.

Look around Africa. Without piracy and often downright intellectual property theft, we would probably have only half of the thousands of private FM radio stations on air today. Most of these stations don’t pay for the music they play, the news they rip off newspapers, and all the filler programmes.

Still, they have managed to do good. They have created new wonderful spaces for democratic conversation. In countries like Senegal they have enabled honest elections by foiling attempts to cheat the vote. They have been wonderful marketing vehicles for products that would have failed, creating new sources of wealth. And they have created a whole new class of celebrities and people with money, the fact that several of them are empty-handed notwithstanding.

The emergence of the African middle class, and a new “tribeless” urban culture and communities in many African towns and cities (very handy for a modern Africa), has been made possible partly by private FM radios over the last 20 years. Intellectual property theft has also driven the spread of TVs and DVDs. An authentic DVD of Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible” will cost you $25 in Nairobi and other African cities.

A good pirate version will go for $1.5. Without piracy, there would be no DVD and DVD player market to speak of in Africa. DVD bootleggers established all the taste for the now big film industry in Nigeria, Nollywood, or Kenya’s Riverwood for that matter. (See the wonderful article by The Economist on Nollywood’s fortunes a year ago – http://www.economist.com/node/17723124).

Of course, the problem is that if the tiny percentage of creative people who make films, write books, produce TV programmes and newspapers, and record music don’t get paid, soon they will all go hungry and give up, and we shall have nothing.

Therefore they must get paid. If no one paid for anything creative people did, even folks like myself would now be in the village raising goats and growing yams.

What seems to rankle is that many think creative people are greedy. Until a few years ago, a good journalist wrote an article in the paper, it was bought on, say, a Monday when the paper was sold, and he got paid from that. Now, as Chris Anderson ably made the point, the Internet has created a “long tail”.

Thus in the past a musician cut his CD in Kenya, it was bought by 50,000 or so people living in Kenya, and he got his cut from that. Today, if it is posted online 10 Million people in 150 countries could listen to it, and a few thousand might mash or remix it – and the musician wants all these people to pay for the favour.

It’s noble, but the world has not yet come round to accepting it. Besides, look at it this way. If you buy a Japanese mini van and use it as a matatu (public transport vehicle), you don’t have to pay the manufacturer in Tokyo for every passenger you carry.

To complicate matters, just like the matatu operator doesn’t own or pay for the road, the folks who produce movies, music, and all that don’t own or pay for the wide world web. They just piggyback on it, if you come to think of it.

From that point of view, piracy could be seen as the cost of travel and visibility that creative people pay for their products to be carried on the web.

A balance is possible, I believe. One idea that might be acceptable is a kind of “limited licensing”. If I am the site who gets to make a first move on selling your song, I should pay for it. To make it worthwhile for me, for a week or so copying and redistribution should not be allowed (laws and technology can make that work). But after the first or second monopoly week, the material becomes free on the web.

In addition since, as noted earlier, the people who do really smart and valuable things online are few, the web can be rigged in their favour. A popular writer should have his material showing up first on Google, way above that of some mediocre pretender.

Kanye West’s music should come first before that of some obscure outfit with a name like The Timbuktu Hot Squad.

If one takes a long-term view, the real money online is still far away, despite the fact that the Facebooks and Googles of this world are raking in billions. For the numbers that create a web of billions of consumers who can pay for things online to grow, some strategic piracy will have to be allowed, especially in immature markets in Africa, Asia, and South America.

In that sense, piracy is the feed that fattens the Internet cow.

© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3

2 comments on “Why Digital Thieves Are Good For The Future Of Online Business; A View From The Equator In Africa

  1. Jhacky Torreon
    January 18, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Thanks for taking time for sharing this article; it was excellent and very informative. Though you make some very fascinating points, you’re going to have to do more than bring up a few things that may be different than what we’ve already heard. Continue with the great work on the site. Thank you.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:41 am #


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