The Ethics Of Music “File Sharing”

NOTE: This article was written quite a few years ago. While some of the information may have become dated, I still stand behind the basic content. I think the music industry today is a pale imitation of the creativity and overall quality of the 1960s and 70s. Of course, some music sucked back then, too…but it DIDN’T all sound the same. The devaluing of music has turned it from a vehicle for passion and self-expression into a star-making vehicle. I find that profoundly sad.

What’s the big deal about sharing music files?

Discussions about the legality and morality of peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing of music files are nothing new. But the fact that we’ve grown weary of the topic doesn’t mean that good information or cogent arguments are freely available. Most of the people who speak up on the subject have an agenda… sometimes just an effort to excust their own behavior … and, in many cases, there’s a profit motive that colors their thinking.

Our goal here is to present a fair and reasoned point of view. Not necessarily a balanced view. I definitely feel strongly about the issue. Rather, fair-minded in the sense of trying to represent all points of view with some respect.

I believe that peer-to-peer file sharing, as it is generally practiced, is stealing. I don’t use the term to shock…just to speak plainly. But, while this is a multi-layered issue, which has a lot of history behind it…it’s not really all that complicated.

Allow me to explain:

All music is not great, or even good. Some music is much better than other music…everyone knows that. Of course, what’s good for one person isn’t necessarily what’s good for another. That’s why there’s so much variety in music.

However, all music has value. Its value is relative, and each song or group of songs must be judged by each individual listener as to whether it’s worth their time and money.

In order to create great music, many musicians have sacrificed other things in their lives: more lucrative careers, sometimes their families and even their physical health. Sometimes this is done for more shallow goals such as the pursuit of fame and fortune, yes…but many other artists have sacrificied because of a need deep inside them to create art that they felt was significant and powerful: to create beauty, to express fiery passion, to work thru deep personal angst or to speak truth to power.

In reality, most artists fail to ever make a name for themselves or a space on the music store shelves for their product. There’s a much larger group eeking out a living in local bars and clubs than the group of household names whose music gets played on the radio. And yet, both groups share one thing in common. Their music…who they are and what they’ve created…is their commodity. In the same way that some people may have athletic ability, great education, a natural gift of gab or the ability to manage people… the musician has a set of tools for their career…as a writer, player or singer.

So…to the artists…music has value. Very tangible value.

For most of the last century…the fans of music have acknowledged the value of music with their time and money. Attending concerts, listening to the radio, buying albums. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of albums.

When the cassette tape became popular during the 1970s, a lot of people began to take advantage of the fact that music could be copied from an album to a cassette. It was great for sharing with friends. Sometimes, the friends bought the album if they liked it. Sometimes they didn’t. But this didn’t put a huge dent in record sales…so nobody really made a big deal about it. Music continued to sell at a healthy pace.

So…to the fans…music has value. Very tangible value.

Record companies have been around for almost as long as recorded music has been available. Only they had the resources to take a chance on an unknown musical commodity (artist or band), the connections to retailers to put the product in their stores, and to radio to get the music played.

In many cases, they developed a terrible reputation because of their strong-arm business practices. They drove hard bargains with artists and retailers. They tried to manipulate radio airplay thru payola. Margins throughout the distribution channels were kept very tight. The artists got lousy deals…heavily weighted toward the companies. And an adversarial relationship developed between the two.

But…when an artist was successful…very successful…they grew in power, and were able to renegotiate a contract with much more favorable terms. And when that happened, the companies and the artists often became fabulously wealthy.

So…to the companies…music has a very, very tangible value.

In the early 1990s, the internet was something that only a few knew about or understood. Access was painstakingly slow (“the world wide wait”). It held little practical value for most people.

But over the next decade, storage capacities and transmission speeds exploded. It became important for most people to have email, home internet access, and eventually a broadband connection.

Still, only short clips of music files were shared online…they were just too large to be reasonably transmitted online, even over broadband.

Then came MP3. With a filesize one-tenth that of .wav files, this friendly little format allowed music to be ripped from a CD and posted on a web site, attached to an email, or placed in online folders to be shared with friends and associates.

Napster was the first to popularize the concept of online music file-sharing. Others (Kazaa, Morpheus, Gnutella, Limewire) improved upon the concept. Now, people could copy and share their music with anyone who wanted it. It was completely free. As long as somewhere, somewhere bought a single copy…the rest of the world could partake without spending a dime. People were burning custom CDs right and left. Blank CDs, at 50 cents apiece, were a steal compared to $15 albums.

And then, the coup de grace…the iPod. Drop some decent coin for one of these little magic boxes and forget about the need to even burn CDs.

Free music had become truly free.

Or so it seemed…

People generally understand the concept of theft. But, when someone suggests that file sharing is wrong because it’s stealing…it doesn’t take long for someone to step up and say “It’s not stealing! I only have a copy. They still have theirs, too (either a copy or the original). I didn’t take it away.”
And…isn’t that right? After all, the dictionary defines stealing as: “the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.” But the owner still has theirs…so it’s not stealing, right?

Well, let’s take a closer look. What did the owner actually purchase…assuming they purchased a legitimate copy of the CD or downloaded the track legally?

They purchased a copy for personal listening. That means for them to play in their little corner of the world. On their stereo, in their car, to rip and play on their MP3 player.

But, as previously mentioned, they still have their CD…so where’s the theft? Who has been wronged?

The artist and the record company, that’s who (not to mention the publishing company and the retail outlet). They have lost sales. Instead of buying a CD or paying to download a track, the money has stayed in their pocket.

This is the point in the discussion where the downloader says, “Well, I don’t like that song all that much anyway. I wouldn’t have bought the track or the album!”

Fine…then, delete the song from you hard drive/CD/MP3 player.

“But, I want to hear it sometimes…”

Then, you’ve just proven the point. The music has value to you. And you took it without permission and without paying. That’s called stealing.

No one cares if you had your friend’s permission to copy it or download it. The permission wasn’t theirs to give. They don’t own the music.

What the record companies do wrong

With very few exceptions, the record companies support the creation of albums containing only one or two songs with “hit” potential. In the past, that’s all it took to sell albums. Customers were forced to buy full albums (or overpriced “singles” available only for the hit songs), even if they felt there was only one song worth owning. That didn’t seem fair. Customers felt they deserved more options.

The record companies are now big business. Three or four huge conglomerates control all the major labels and artists. They don’t keep up with advances in technology…or they haven’t until recently. They were dragged kicking and screaming to the concept of selling single track downloads. And they only do it now because they have been fairly successful in hamstrining the customer with their Digital Rights Management protection schemes…which only serves to make the audience more frustrated.

Combine this with the fact that music has taken a nose-dive in recent years. The record companies have never been known as innovators. If anything, they just try to duplicate what has worked in the past…hoping it will continue to sell. Either there’s less talent than ever, or the best people are staying independent of the labels, or something… because popular music is pretty much bankrupt as an art form. If the artists are “pretty” enough, and the songs have a good beat, they may make for decent entertainment… especially at loud parties or noisy environments…but that has little to do with quality music.

So the record companies have done little to endear themselves to their audiences.

What the downloaders (“sharers”) do wrong

Even with all those legitimate arguments, file sharing is still theft. And that makes it a bad idea.

It’s true that some young people know little else. They were “Napster babies”… raised with the understanding that it was OK to download music without paying for it. Even the courts sent mixed messages on the subject for awhile while they struggled to understand what exactly what happening.

But…over time, the legal issues have become much more clear. Music theft is just as much theft as anything else. It’s a jailable offense.

Now that affordable track downloads are available from companies like iTunes, Wal-mart, Napster (now reborn and legit) and Yahoo! Music, there’s no good excuse to steal anymore. Most music is now available. It’s very affordable. You’re no longer forced to buy a whole album when you only want a song or two.

Lots of things need to change. But, it will take time:

A consensus needs to be developed that illegal file sharing is wrong. Friends need to encourage each other to do the right thing. Show someone how strongly you feel about it by buying a song for them rather than stealing it. Parents need to teach their kids why music theft is a bad thing.

Record companies need to ease up on Digital Rights Management. If someone is going to steal, they’re going to steal. Better to make life easier for your paying customers. DRM is a waste, and it adds complexity and additional cost to the process. Free the music for the benefit of your customers.

Music needs to get better. There are good reasons why good music is so popular. It connects with people on a very deep level. But most of the music that’s being created today is pretty unremarkable. Songwriters need to get busy and write better stuff. Artists need to put their egos down and go find some good songs to sing that were written by someone else.

Listeners need to broaden their musical horizons. Instead of just listening to what the record labels and radio stations say is good (which, coincidentally, is ALWAYS someone they have a financial stake in..), check out some independent artists. There are now literally thousands of gifted artists who record and release their own music, and promote it on their web sites. Because everything they do is funded out of their own pocket, they tend to be serious about their music. Spend some time poking around and see what kinds of treasures you can unearth. You’ll find that most indie artists also tend to offer some of their music for free download. Whole tracks, not just preview clips …so you have a chance to listen long enough to really decide what you think of their stuff. Yes, you’ll have to wade thru a lot of lame stuff. But you’ll be surprised at some of the stuff you can find that no one has ever heard of before.