Illegal Downloading Is Wrong, But I Do It Anyway

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

Question: If you were in the middle of a riot, streets overrun with people freaking out, smashing windows in shops and nabbing whatever they can carry by hand, would you partake in the looting?

I'd like to think I wouldn't. Theoretically, my conscience would stop me before I took the physical steps toward the theft; actually, I would likely be more afraid of being trampled than caught. This scenario makes me a hypocrite, because I need only to look at my iTunes library to see the spoils of my looting.

The current wave of debate over the morality and consequence of downloading began with Emily White's article on NPR's All Songs Considered Blog entitled "I Never Owned Any Music To Being With," which inspired a thoughtful reaction from David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. White's article is honest and relatable. Lowery's is so spot-on that it rubs my nose in the mess I've made on my hard drive, although I will say his angle of implicating piracy in Vic Chesnutt's suicide is more than a tad sensationalist. I won't reiterate their articles too much, but I encourage you to read both.

Theoretically, I agree with Lowery's main points -- that the industry is not the evil warlock it's made out to be and that artists rely on compensation for their efforts -- but I find myself more in the Emily White camp in my actions. Here's the difference: I know I am doing something wrong when I download an album from Mediafire, and I know Mediafire is doing something wrong by hosting the file and looking the other way.

What this debate is changing for me is my self-righteousness. I have used every excuse to justify my illegal downloading. "I'm just sampling it before I buy." (I rarely ever buy). "I'll make up for it by seeing the band when it comes to town." (I don't go to as many shows as I'd like to, and when I do, I usually use my RFT Music powers to weasel my way on to the press guest list). "The artist would be okay with it." (I do not know these people and cannot speak for them). Truly, I have the justification of a looting rioter; there are so many of us stealing that the likelihood of getting busted is minimal.

Now, if somebody asks me why I download music illegally, I might respond, "Because I'm a dick, but I'm working on it."

Certainly the system of music delivery and consumption is broken. Labels still haven't mastered digital distribution and the artists' royalty rates for iTunes and similar download services are far too low. The industry side didn't help out by suing its own customers during the Napster scare. But this is no excuse for piracy; if the issue was the artist's cut, I could pull a My Name Is Earl-esque stunt and send $1 per song to every artist I listen to via PayPal in exchange for permission or forgiveness for downloading on the black market.


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9 comments
Middle-aged-guy
Middle-aged-guy

As was stated in the article, it is wrong, but millions do it because it is easy and the risk is negligible.  And yet 'respectable' people still try to justify it.  Here are the top 10 excuses I hear when I put friends and colleagues on the spot: 1. I would never have paid for it, and my download didn't actually 'cost' the artist anything, so it isn't really stealing. 2. The industry is too dumb to figure out how to stop it.  Their problem, not mine. 3. I bought the album/CD years ago, so I already paid for it. 4. I sample it, then buy it if I like it.  If not, I delete it. 5. The internet stands for freedom, so everything on it should be free.  Government agencies who shut down sites are censoring free exchange of information, and need to be resisted. 6. The artists are already rich enough.  Same for Apple and the record companies.  They can afford it. 7. I'm not the one committing the crime.  Blame the uploaders and the hosting sites. 8. It is a victimless crime, like speeding.  Everyone does it, not just criminals. 9. People have always done it.  We use to tape each other's albums, and later copied CDs and DVDs, and no-one batted an eyelid.  This is no different. 10. The prices are too high.  If they were more reasonable, I would pay. I actually have some sympathy with 10, especially movie rentals.  I thought the same when I realized many e-books were more expensive than the paper equivalents.  There must be some dividend to consumers from the lack of physical media, and negligible distribution costs.  It is harder to do the right then when you feel ripped off. Personally, I think Spotify is the only model that can work - you pay to listen, not to own, with subsidy through advertising.  As far as I know, they have yet to make a profit, but Amazon lost big money for years while it established the model. Yes, I would mourn the passing of the full ownership experience (unwrapping the Dark Side of the Moon for the first time, savoring that iconic cover art - yes, I'm that old,) but having access to a global jukebox with (almost) everything on it more than compensates.  

Rubber Duckie
Rubber Duckie

What I would think would be a super "hot button" issue isn't, only seven comments garnered. My guess - everyone is busy illegally downloading music to comment.

Ryan Wasoba
Ryan Wasoba

It is my understanding that artists get no royalties from used CDs. There was an attempt by the RIAA a few years back to change this but they couldn't get the tax passed.  Podcasts have to pay licensing fees to use music, unless it's a clip and could qualify as "fair use." While a podcast technically a free download, I think the inconvenience factor of having to find a specific point in the podcast to access the song outweighs the free aspect in the minds of the copyright owners so they're not freaking out about it.I agree with you about the gray area (although I prefer the spelling with an "a"). I intentionally left those arguments out of the article because I didn't want to even appear that I was justifying illegal downloading. And I only have a basic grasp of royalties and how artists get paid, so my reluctance to comment on the slippery parts goes along with my lack of expertise on the subject.This has been an issue for a long time. I have a Chick Corea record from the late 70s, and the inside sleeve is an open letter from all the artists on the label urging people to not tape the record for their friends.

Brian
Brian

Sounds like all you did was recognize you are wrong, you're a scumbag, and you're doing nothing to change.  Congratulations.  This article was totally pointless.  I hope you get sued by the RIAA.

Gopal Rao
Gopal Rao

Where does buying used cds or vinyl fit into this debate?  What about downloading podcasts from sites like podomatic?  What about (illegally) downloading albums that are out of print with little or no prospect of being released commercially? I don't think this debate is as black-and-white as people are making it out to be.   I see some significant grey area, a bit of reluctance to discuss it in any detail.

Jjones134
Jjones134

There is no debate here. You have chosen to steal the work of someone else. Every rationalization and philosophical musing won't get you any farther from that reality. Everyone with a computer and internet access has the same opportunity as you...just like anyone who owns a trench coat and shops at Schnucks. You have chosen a path which is ultimately destructive to the livelihoods of others....your choice...but please, don't subject us to why we should possibly agree with your actions.

Tony Patti
Tony Patti

You've got the right idea. Free music is worthless. Throw it all away, and see if you want any of it enough to buy it.  I have a friend who has so much crap to listen to he has a stack of CDs a foot high he's always taking discs from, one at a time, to listen to on his commute. Sounds kind of sad to me. I have to decide what to buy after a lot of effort, buy it, listen to it repeatedly, and then see if I crave it before I really decide, yes, this is good. My impression of the music consumer who downloads free music is that of an insincere faker who can pretend an in depth knowledge of what he only knows superficially. It's a condemnation this article does little to contradict.

Anonymous
Anonymous

The original NPR article makes me sad. I'm (only?) in my mid-thirties, but I can honestly say that I've never downloaded any illegal music. I buy primarily vinyl and occasionally CDs. I've never even bought anything off iTunes. The only downloads I have came from the download coupons that are included with most new vinyl these days. I don't know how people expect the artists to make any money if you don't buy their music. In addition to that, I like feeling as thought I'm a part of something. I like knowing that I'm a part of the record's "life" in some way. And let's not forget how important it is to support record stores such as Vintage Vinyl, Euclid Records, Apop, and others. I think Ryan did make a good point about how people should concentrate on the music they do have and not treat it in such a disposable manner. When you pay for something yourself, it means more.

Guesty
Guesty

Hopefully you go to jail. You suck, Wasoba.

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