This is always one of those tricky areas for me. A lot of it, in my mind, comes down to the owner's real intention for what kind of material they want to host on their site, and sadly a lot of times it is really really hard to tell.
What I mean is that with a site like, say, Pirate's Bay (a great Voltaire song by the way) there is a very clear intention of hosting pirated software on the site. It's right in the name. Even without the name though, the owners of that site have had a very clear history of ignoring copyright takedown notices and they've even gone as far as replying back to agencies like the RIAA to tell them that they refuse to take down any content because US laws don't apply to them.
As Sanctuary pointed out though, isohunt has shown the polar opposite behavior. The owner has gone out of his way to follow the law and with asking for CRIA's help I think that it puts him in a very responsible category. It's not often that sites like this reach out to copyright owners *before* they come with lawsuits and I think that is worth commending.
I went to check out the site to get a better feel for their intention, and I found something there that I think is telling of their true position on the matter as well:
We serve cached .torrent links to such files on P2P networks. Some of these files maybe copyright infringing, some aren't. But given the ridiculously long copyright terms in most countries of the world (which does differ) and that all creative media are copyrighted by default (in many countries), large majority of files exchanged on the internet would be copyrighted. That includes Linux ISO images and your videos of friends and family doing whacky things. The real question is are they infringing against the wishes of respective copyright owners.
It's clear to me that their intention isn't to distribute *illegal* material. Their intention is just to distribute material in general, plain and simple. There is quite a bit of material out there that people have made that they *want* to have passed around as much as it can be, and it is to those people that I believe the site is trying to cater to instead of those that are trying to pass out other people's material against their wishes.
Now, what about the copyrighted material that is being passed around against the wishes of the owners? Ignoring for a minute the legal side of this debate, there are definitely some morale issues that I have with downloading material for free that is meant to be paid for, most specifically if you intend to keep what you download indefinitely instead of buying the CD, DVD or software package that you bought. People work hard putting together these things and a lot of them make their living off other people buying their work. It's really hard to say that they don't deserve to be compensated. Even if it's a high dollar item that you can't afford right now, you should be coughing up the cash for it the second you start making any money with it (ie - Photoshop).
That being said however, I also think that copyright owners are far too often relying on a model for doing business that is beginning to crack and crumble to the ground. Does that mean I think people should give up on trying to make money off their material? Not at all. But, with piracy ever on the rise, and hackers finding ways to circumvent copyright protection on software, music and videos almost immediately after it's released, it really does bring to light the fact that the internet just doesn't work in the favor of people and services offering any kind of download that you have to pay for.
I don't know that anyone has a perfect solution to this yet, but I think that a lot of Linux distributions (like Ubuntu and Red Hat from back before they split into two different versions) have the right idea when it comes to this. In their model, they give you the software that you need absolutely and completely free. There are no catches or limitations on what you can do with it, but where they end up making their money is in paid support services for their products. Because it's free to download and install, convincing millions of people to use the software becomes much much easier, and then you just have to play the numbers to see that if even if only 1% of those users ever need to call for help, there is tons of money out there to be made from supporting those users.
Another place to look at in the software market is Mozilla (the people that make Firefox). They took a slightly different approach than offering paid support, but one that I think is equally successful. Firefox, just like Linux, is an absolutely free program to download and it's no surprise to me at all that it now holds 20% of the browser market share out there because of how fast and useful it can be. What most people don't realize however, is that even though it is free, Mozilla actually makes a ton of money from Firefox through its partnership with Google. You see, every time that you type something in the Google search box at the top of the browser and then click on one of Google's advertisements instead of just on a search result, Mozilla makes a little money.
Applying these ideas to things like music, TV shows and movies gets a little trickier, but I really do believe that they can still work.
For music, artists can put up their songs for free download off their websites with advertisements up to help cover the cost of keeping their sites up (nowadays $10 a month is about all you really need to pay hosting, unless you have an *extremely* popular site). Providing that people like what they hear, the added exposure the artists can get from having their music up and online will almost certainly help them draw bigger concerts and perform a lot more shows as well.
No one has to completely abandon CD sales either, because the people that really enjoy their work will still be the ones stepping up to the plate to buy hard copies of what they hear. Alex Reed from ThouShaltNot said this better than I can ever hope to (check out our chat transcript and podcast interview with him if you haven't already), but there really is something to be said for having a physical album that you just can't capture with a download. When Voltaire sent the station his latest CD (To the Bottom of the Sea), I really had to appreciate what I was seeing, and it was definitely well worth the money. The case is a 3 part fold out with incredible art work covering every last inch and with the book of lyrics attached that includes a section piecing together how the songs in the album work to tell a story, it put a perfect finishing touch on the whole experience. I love the case and the book almost as much as I love the music, and I know for certain that other people would be happy to pay to be able to hold it in their hands as well, even if they could download all the songs off of it for free.
When I bought a copy of the movie Se7en, I had the choice of a plain boxed DVD in a generic looking plastic case or a 2 disc set with added scenes and bonus materials in a paper case that was designed to look and feel like one of the killer's notebooks. The choice was very easy, and even though it cost me $10 more I was more than happy with that purchase. Let people watch their movies or shows for free online with some advertisements in it, but then offer them the option of buying the hard copy with bonus features and carefully detailed packaging. You'll have hordes of buyers clamoring for their copy before they're all sold out.
People don't want to pay for a download because it doesn't feel like they're getting anything special when they do. There's nothing personal to it and most of the time the process feels so automated that you feel like nothing more than a number by the time the transaction is done.
What people are happy to pay for though, is an experience. They want a personal touch. They want a connection. They want to know that some kind of work went into *their* purchase.
Even if you don't have the resources to pull off a professionally designed presentation, something small can make a huge difference. Imagine if you got an email from one of the bands that you just bought a CD from that said "Hey there Cassi, I saw that you ordered a copy of our new album and I just wanted to say thank you for helping to support us. Oh, and by the way, I looked at your forum profile on our site and stopped by your blog for a look. I hope Mittens the cat likes his new cat house."
Would you pay $10 for that if you could? I would.
If copyright holders looked down this avenue more than they looked down the road of suing every site they find where a user has posted their work without their permission, they might find a much more profitable outcome I think.
The sky was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel. - William Gibson