June 17, 2012

Semantic grumbling...

In Russian the semantic connection between the verb which translates "to share" and the verb which translates "to divide" is syntactically explicit, i.e., the former contains the latter as a substring:
делиться (delitsya) and  делить (delit).  

In English the connection is only etymological (dating to something like the 16th century use of the verb "to share"), but the implication is still there:  To share X with others is to have less of X left for oneself, whether X is an object (a loaf of bread), or access to something (such as a computer, a car, or a mistress).*

With this in mind I find it remarkable that so many people who post digital copies of music recordings on the internet describe their activity as sharing.   After all, this activity reduces neither the number of recordings in their collection nor their access to those recordings.  My guess is that the pervasive use of "sharing" in this context is motivated by the desire to put a positive semantic spin on what -  in the case of commercial music recordings - is essentially an immoral act.  The kind of semantic spin that would be enthusiastically embraced by the OCCUPY EMI-BMG-SONY movement if there were one...**

After a bit of reflection I'm inclined to think that a semantically appropriate  way to describe the act of making a digital copy of a recording available to others on the internet is precisely the verb used in the FBI Anti-Piracy Warning on every commercial DVD:  distributing.  Whether the digital data file you make available on the internet contains some commercial recording or an amateur video of your bar mitzvah, you are simply distributing digital copies of the recording.   To call this "sharing" seems to me as semantically perverse as to call a beating administered by a loan shark's enforcer "debt negotiation".

 *  I refer here to sharing things (or access to things) that could be called "measurable", which automatically rules out cases where someone "shares" with others his wisdom, family troubles, or passion for sex in public places.
 **  Such semantic spins bring to mind a street protest I once saw in Manhattan on a weekday during business hours, when a group of unwashed, rent control-sustained social parasites (also known as "housing activists") carried signs saying HOUSING FOR PEOPLE, NOT FOR PROFIT!


Jens Ravnkilde said...

It is perfectly correct English to speak of sharing something with others in a case where the sharing does not mean you get less of it yourself.

"I want to share with you my insights why Elliott Carter is a greater composer than Schubert."

The transitive/intransitive distinction does not come into it. The distinction you have in mind is that between sharing a physical object and sharing something that is not a physical object, your point being that only when physical objects are involved can you properly speak of sharing, because only then does the sharing leave you with less of it yourself. E.g."Let us share this banana".

Hence your point does not hold water. It is not improper to speak of uploading digital files as "sharing". True, the digital file is a physical object and the sharing does not leave you with less of a file yourself. However, it could be argued that what is really meant is the sharing of the recording, or the work recorded, or the pleasure of listering to it. None of these three is a physical object in the required sense.

Gyan said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

laybl said...

My favorite social protest back in the mid-sixties was the sandwich sign toted near Grand Central that read,"FREE KODAK FILM".
I'm glad you footnoted the fact that sharing need not involve diminution.

The only Russian I learned from my Bolshevik, Ukrainian-born father was,"Chyop tvoie mat!" Excuse the transliteration...he usually exclaimed this pet phrase while driving.

Boom said...


Appreciate your comment. You are right, of course, that "sharing" under discussion involves something like "physical object", although philosophers would have a field day with that!. (I corrected the footnote accordingly.) But that's not all. It also involves cases where it is up to me whether to share X with you or not. So the fact that it is acceptable to say that I share this planet with you does not seem to invalidate my grumbling.

As for sharing "non-physical" objects (pleasures, thoughts, etc.), the use of the word is certainly acceptable (I explicitly mentioned and excluded such cases in the second footnote). I was not proposing to legislate linguistic conventions.

However, the sharing of music recordings also involves entities (physical or not) for which it makes sense to speak of ownership (or rights of some kind) and transfer of ownership (rights).
I doubt that this applies naturally to cases where I share with you this planet, or my family troubles, or passion for cooking.

Secondly, acceptable use (which you seem to stress) is not the same as semantic cogency - at least not to my mind. Today the meaningless use of (grammatically correct) expression "I could care less" seems to have become acceptable to great many people. But I would still grumble about this semantically bizarre alternative to "I could NOT care less".

In the end, to defend the semantic legitimacy of using "sharing" in contexts where the "sharer" is not left with less of what he "shares" requires some distinction between "physical" and "non-physical" objects - and this is a philosophically convoluted distinction to say the least! The prospect of making clear what exactly are "non-physical" objects, how we can have any kind of access to such objects, let alone "share" them with others - this already sounds like an ontological nightmare. I discussed some of these issues in an earlier post


so I will not repeat myself here.
In this post I wanted to grumble...

Boom said...

Gyan said...

>> Thanks for sharing your thoughts <<


If you meant to thank me for communicating (or revealing) my thoughts to you, then you are very welcome.
Otherwise your gratitude does not make sense to me because I certainly did not (and could not) SHARE my thoughts :)

laybl said...

My father was right!

I tied a nylon rope around my waist and inched my way through your exposition. I found one area of concern, if not disagreement--for me, music is music, not only because of its structure and
the emotions evoked, but equally important, because of the autobiographic memories and responses experienced by the composer. These phantasms haunt even the most non-programmatic works. And each performer/conductor superimposes (unconsciously)his own set of racial/ethnic/sexual/neurotic, etc. memorabilia.


Anonymous said...

Quite right, "sharing" is a term embraced by the digital pirating community to make it appear as if what they are doing is somehow virtuous.

Another hypocrisy that appears is "intended for preview purposes only, please delete after 24 hours".

But it is the over-emphasis on how "sharing" this or that recording via the distribution of an illegal copy on some blog makes the world a better place for some deeply spiritual listener who was able to save $10 that causes one's stomach to churn...

Jens Ravnkilde said...

It is no longer clear to me what point you are making. The fact remains that it in no way contravenes what the term "share" means in English, to describe uploading a digital copy of a recording of a piece of music as "sharing" what is uploaded. You seem to want to support your dislike of the uploading, which you consider immoral, by a convoluted point about semantics, but the point is mistaken.

Incidentally, it is also a huge mistake (this time a misunderstanding of law) a legal nature to confuse ownership with copyright. The uploading infringes copyright, not ownership. Copyright in X is a exclusive right to make copies of X, and this not the same as owning X. If you care about semantics in this field you should grumble about the utter absurdity of copyright holders and their organizations describing the illegal downloading as "theft". The term is of course used solely to make the downloaders look bad.

Boom said...

Jens Ravnkilde said...

>> It is no longer clear to me what point you are making.<<


I am sorry to hear that, Jens. The point is sufficiently clear in the original post, at least as far as can be expected from a short blog post.

Still, I will clarify three items about which you seem to be rather badly confused:

1. I know what "share" means in English, and none of the meanings makes much sense in the context of uploading digital copies of recordings. (That, by the way, is my point.)

2. I did not express my "dislike of uploading", only of the use of "share" to describe this practice. If you read my post a bit more carefully, you'll see that I apply my grumbling to posting copies of an amateur video of one's own bar mitzvah. As for the immorality of uploading digital copies of music recordings, I mentioned it only as a possible reason which may explain the pervasive use of "share". And I began the sentence expressing that conjecture with the words "My guess is...".

3. Incidentally, I make no mistake (huge or small) about the difference between copyright and ownership. If you read my response to your earlier comment you'll see that I speak of "ownership OR rights of some kind". You seem the kind of person who should be able to understand the use of disjunctive "OR", and also to note that no mention of "copyright" was made in that sentence at all.

David said...

Not to get into semantics, and hoping to find myself agreeing with previous comments rather than starting an argument (!), but it is good to see the 'distribution' of copies of copyright material being described as both illegal and immoral. Is it immoral because it's illegal? Or is it immoral anyway, and the illegality is the musicians' way of asserting that their right is more than 'just' a moral one, it's also a socially destructive one & therefore appropriate for the law to define it as non-legal too? Incidentally, I would also draw a distinction between what the musicians might want and what the corporations might want. It would be a stupid musician (or one unusually confident in the economics of live performance for anyone but the megastar-megabucks few) who would not in general agree with the industry's attempts to retain copyright & thus a royalty flow. Giving away your music on YouTube - when it is yours to give away - is of course an option (and a good way of gaining recognition) but in the end if you plan to make a living (= make money) from your music having a royalty flow or equivalent seems a bit of a no-brainer...

billinrio said...

Words do make a difference - a very large one, in fact. So it's not "just semantics". In the case of the use of the term "sharing", you touch on a pet peeve of mine. It makes me cringe when someone says that they want to "share" something with me, when all they really mean is that they want to tell me something.