Wonderful question, Morgan. Who doesn't want all the music they can get? (I "only" have 3,483 songs on my iTunes, an embarrassing fact when comparing music libraries among friends.) But where does the peer-to-peer philosophy fit in with contemporary ethics? On one side, we have a generation of budding technophiles who, earbuds planted firmly in ears, say "let them share music." And other the other side, we have the RIAA who is levying a strategic legal campaign to stop "piracy," which, according to its estimates has cost the industry $4.2 billion per year. So where do we go from here?

First, the argument that there is nothing wrong with downloading music as it stands. Let's call this the "fourteen-year-old boy" argument. It goes something like this: "Dowloading music without paying is illegal, but I want music for free. Therefore, I will download music." Obviously, this is a short-sighted argument and does not concern itself with the economic and legal underpinnings of the file sharing debate. In short, dowloading is sweet! 

Now, let's look as the "industry" argument, which is along these lines: "The MP3 files shared on p2p networks are the intellectual property of the record companies that produce the CD's from which they are ripped. Therefore, exchanging these files is theft." In short, dowloading is stealing

To most, the discussion may seem complete, all pertinent arguments having weighed in. But I don't think it's that simple. Binary oppositions are always quite tempting. Human beings seem to be geared toward them. How else would Steven Segal make a living? But we need to push beyond this binary opposition and look at a more refined and nuanced argument. I'll call it the "Free Culture" argument. 

It goes something like this: "Current law says downloading free music is illegal. I believe these laws should be adapted to changing technologies and changing norms. Depending on my personal ethics, I may download music for free now or I may wait until it becomes legal." In short, downloading should be allowed and can be justified as civil disobedience. For more on how to make p2p legal, read the Electronic Frontier Foundation's primer.  

I of course am a fan of the Free Culture argument. I think the "pirates" downloading music right now are not that different from the "pirates" that recorded television shows to VHS (for shame!) before 1984's Sony Betamax decision. 

Daniel Corbett 

Advertisements