Illegal downloading hurts many

Few students would condone walking into Sam Goody and nabbing their favorite CDs.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer v. Grokster. The case will decide whether Grokster, a distributor of peer-to-peer networking software, can be held responsible or vicariously liable for the copyright infringement of the software’s users. The case presents a timely opportunity to re-examine the legality, morality and effects of downloading your favorite Internet tunes, a practice that has become an unfortunate and undeniable piece of college culture.

Today, college students are the least likely to care about the legality of the practice. A whopping 80 percent of full-time college students said they were “unconcerned” if the files they share are protected by copyright law. The statistic should be unsurprising to anyone familiar with college culture. On campus, Kazaa, Shareaza and Morpheus are as trendy as the Gap or J. Crew.

As a straightforward matter of legality, it is difficult to dispute that downloading copyrighted music for free and without permission is illegal under current copyright law. It is also near impossible to argue that proceeding to share that music with other users conforms to the letter of the law. A great majority (some estimate upwards of 90 percent) of files shared on peer-to-peer programs such as Kazaa have been posted without the permission of the owner. Yet, the taking of others’ intellectual property without permission or compensation has become more like speeding than shoplifting.

In this case, students don’t care the practice is illegal and have no fear of getting caught. Moreover, most have no qualms and scoff at the suggestion their indiscriminate downloading equates to theft.

At a gut level, I find the moral stance surprising. My conscience does somersaults over the prospect of a free thousand-song music collection. But my conscience seems to be in the minority. Why?

Few students would condone walking into Sam Goody and nabbing their favorite CDs. Yet, the same people download thousands of songs without as much as a moral twinge.

Those who justify the practice by citing the big, bad, price-gouging record industry have little ground to stand on; the industry is the same in both cases. The fundamental disconnect seems to be rooted in a refusal to recognize digital music and “intellectual property” as real property. To fanatics, the MP3 is less tangible, and little injury seems to result from the copying of a digital file. Advocates of indiscriminate downloading like to call the practice a “victimless crime.”

The argument has some validity, and it is true that in one sense, the owner of the property doesn’t “lose” the property, the music is simply duplicated for more to enjoy. But in another sense, the creator and innovator do lose. When music piracy runs rampant and consumers gain music at no cost, the creator is unable to recoup his or her invested time, money and energy.

Contrary to myth, Internet piracy does not help the music industry. Illustratively, record sales declined 15 percent between 1999 and 2002. Some figures put Hollywood’s loss to media piracy in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion a year. Moreover, the recording and movie industry’s expensive waves of litigation would make no rational sense if this claim had any basis in reality.

There is at least one good reason to refrain from indiscriminate downloading. By refraining from the practice and respecting the ends of copyright law, consumers will play their part in ensuring a healthy future with a creative and vibrant selection of songs, movies and artistic works of all kinds. By allowing artists to profit off of their work, copyright law gives artists a financial incentive to take risks and invest their talents in creative endeavors. The real irony is that the group of people who love music the most are indirectly contributing to a decline in the quality and variety of music available to all.

Bryan Freeman welcomes comments at [email protected]