Do musicians and content makers benefit from piracy?

Musician Jonathan Coulton joked on Twitter about whether content makers were finally making money now that Megaupload was shut down. Here, he performs at the Williamsburg Waterfront on July 29, 2011 in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: Couple of quick updates on the Internet piracy story that's been bubbling all week. First of all, it looks like the blackout Wednesday worked. Wikipedia and a whole bunch of others turned themselves off to protest SOPA and PIPA, the two piracy bills pending in Congress -- except they're not pending anymore. Today, leaders in both the House and Senate put 'em on hold indefinitely.

Also, there were more police raids related to the Megaupload shutdown today, the service that lets you share big files like high-quality videos for free. The Justice Department shut 'em down yesterday.

We saw a tweet about it this morning that struck us, from singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. Here's what he said: "Any other musicians out there notice that ever since they shut down Megaupload, the money has just been POURING in?"

We thought that was kind of clever, so we called him up. Welcome to the broadcast.

Jonathan Coulton: Nice to talk to you.

Ryssdal: So obviously you're being sarcastic with that tweet. But are you as a musician able to make money with all the piracy out there?

Coulton: I am. I've been happily co-existing with piracy for the last six years. I make a better living as a musician than I did when I was writing software.

Ryssdal: Really?

Coulton: Yeah.

Ryssdal: But isn't it just wrong to do what Megaupload has been letting people do?

Coulton: Yeah, I don't have any question in my mind that what they were doing was illegal and probably immoral. But what I was getting at with that tweet is: Does the activity on that site really affect my bottom line very much? Or indeed the bottom line of any content creator? If groups like the MPAA spent more time creating a platform where people could buy their stuff legally and easily, instead of trying to block all this piracy, I think they'd get better results.

Ryssdal: Well you know, the Motion Picture Association -- as you said, the MPAA -- and a whole bunch of other people are, in theory, working on that. But what about you as an artist? Do you ever put yourself up there and see what happens with it?

Coulton: Yeah I do that all the time. In fact, when I first started, I wrote a song a week for a year and I put them all up for free, under the theory that piracy was in fact good for an artist, and really what you want is exposure more than anything else. It seems to have worked out pretty well for me.

Ryssdal: Yeah. I wonder if you do what a lot of people do: You know, you'll try to pay for something, either on Netflix or iTunes, and then if it's not there, you'll go get it from Megaupload or any one of the other zillion sites that are out there.

Coulton: Exactly. And when you try to attach a value to the damage caused by the activity on a site like Megaupload, I think it's important to remember that not every download is the same thing as a lost sale. And frequently, people are downloading things because there is no legal way for them to acquire it.

Ryssdal: How old are you?

Coulton: I'm 41.

Ryssdal: Oh. So -- this is going to sound terrible -- you're not a young guy. You're not some 22-year-old college kid doing it.

Coulton: No, I'm an old person. And I know how to use the Internet.

Ryssdal: What do you make of the argument offered by some -- usually on the younger side of the demographic spectrum -- that, you know, information wants to be free and we're entitled to have this stuff?

Coulton: There's no rule that says a creative person is entitled to be paid for their creative work. In fact, for most of human history, music and art was not something that people got paid for at all.

Ryssdal: Yeah, all right, so this is where the cards and letters are going to come on in this segment, because there is this whole copyright law thing and protection of intellectual property.

Coulton: Well don't get me wrong -- I believe in copyright. And I make no secret of the fact that I would love to be paid for music. I'm very grateful that that is my job. But all the time, we, through our actions as individuals, demonstrate what we value as a society. And I think we've all made it pretty clear that our opinions about copyright have really shifted. I just don't think the laws have caught up to that yet.

Ryssdal: Jonathan Coulton, he's a singer-songwriter in New York City. If you listen to his stuff, buy it, will you? Pay him for it. Jonathan, thanks a lot.

Coulton: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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