Illegal downloads – free music with a guilty conscience

Everyone I know does it. Most of my friends nonchalantly boast about it. My iTunes library is littered with it. My external hard drive is infested with an obscene amount of it – ready to put any muso to shame. This is the reality of acquiring music or videos online today. Illegally downloading copyrighted material, is as easy googling a title with the words “free download” as an addendum. Websites such as Isohunt, Limewire, The Pirate Bay, voxy, youtube – are just the tip of the media-industry nightmare, costing artists and record companies billions of dollars, whilst delivering everything on demand to bedrooms and living rooms everywhere – for free. From personal experience, the temptation to download a song or movie without paying for it is huge. After all, why should you need to whip out your parent’s credit card if there is simply no need. It doesn’t feel illegal. You can’t touch it, like a thief can touch a stolen wallet. You don’t have to hide it, like a robber would hide stolen jewelery. It only takes a couple of minutes to sink yourself into the amoral vortex of copyright infringement, yet you will almost never get caught – because it is so prevalent, anonymous and unregulated. No substantial legislation exists in Australia to punish illegal downloading – so you essentially have every piece of music ever recorded at your disposal, like a kid in a candy store.

Which begs the question: Is it correct to download music illegally? The answer is unequivocally: no. There is nothing correct about stealing profit from someone who has worked long and hard on composing, writing and creating a piece of art. However, because the lines between piracy and legitimate file-sharing are so blurred, there are those who justify illegal downloading of intellectual property through a loophole. For example, if I purchase a CD from the store, and my friend borrows the CD to listen for his enjoyment – is this an illegal act? no. Is it considered file-sharing? no. Now consider that my friend goes home and copies the contents of the CD to his computer. Is this considered file-sharing? Yes. Is it illegal? Yes and no. Ripping a CD for personal use is not considered illegal – so long as one does not distribute the contents globally via a file sharing program. As Mark Harris notes on his mp3 blog:

For those of us who just want to convert our original CDs to digital music files for use in MP3 players etc., the good news is that the RIAA still don’t have a problem with this as long as you don’t use file sharing programs. It’s also OK to burn a copy onto CDR as long as it’s from an original you own.

However, my friend technically commits an illegal act

Borrowing an original CD off someone to make a copy for yourself or others is illegal.

Now this is American copyright law, but the Australian record industry faces a similar uphill battle. The following statement released by the Australian Recording Industry Association reads:

“Unauthorised uploading or copying is not free at all—it is the musicians and the people who invest in the music who are paying the price. The artists, first and foremost, the labels that have invested in them, the publishers who manage the copyright of their songs and the thousands of people involved in the many different areas of the music industry are all affected. Downloading and burning without permission doesn’t fairly reward the efforts of those who create, develop and record music, and who depend on it for their livelihood.”

Clearly this issue isn’t simply about rich, hedonistic artists or decadent record companies. It’s about smaller, less well known artists: local bands, undergrounds bands and indie producers. These are the people that really lose out when you decide to download their music. The only positive aspect about distributing their music illegally is that it increases their exposure and popularity – leading to higher attendances at live shows. I remember once watching a TV documentary, in which a struggling artist noted that he only makes money from live shows, and that his entire fan base downloads his music illegally. This is the sad reality of music today.

There have been a select few cases where offenders have been caught, but these are just a drop in the ocean of copyright infringements. Fancy a song? How about this one for $675,000. . . .

Boston PhD student, Joel Tenenbaum, who was found guilty of illegally downloading music in August 2009, is to challenge his $675,000 fine. The announcement which was made via his blog, details the new motion.

As time progresses, and legislation is put forward to prevent file-sharing,  reasonable punitive measures will be meted out to offenders. The upcoming lawsuits demanding half-a-million-dollars are merely attention-grabbing feats of desperation by record companies, seeking to make an example of the unlucky few who are caught. Outrageous, preposterous, unlucky. You can only sympathize and hope that you’re not the next chicken who doesn’t make it across road.

Every time you download a torrent file, your ISP keeps a log of your ip address which can be used to reveal your identity. Most offenders who are caught, readily agree to pay the $3000 fine to record companies. Nobody in their right mind would challenge the record companies with the blatant evidence of guilt stacked against them. Only those  with the foolhardy fortitude of nothing to lose, would take on a media conglomerate (Warning: Do not try this at home, in the workplace, at an internet cafe or in your dreams). Anyone who wishes to do the same should note that his/her shy smirk will wipe away once he/she realizes that notoriety can’t keep one warm at night – even when challenging a row of the record company’s overpaid, celebrity lawyers.

A federal jury in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday ordered a Minneapolis woman to pay $220,000 to six music companies for illegally downloading and sharing copyrighted music over a peer-to-peer network.The 12-person jury said Jammie Thomas must pay $9,250 for each of the 24 songs that were the focus of the case. In their complaint, the six music companies that sued her had claimed that Thomas had illegally shared a total of 1,702 songs over the Kazaa file-sharing network, but they chose to focus on a representative list of 24 songs.

Thus it’s quite clear that the chances of getting caught  are rather unlikely, but if you do get caught, be prepared to weather a music-mortgage of Goliath proportions. But all of this still raises more questions than it answers for those who wish to remain dutiful, law-abiding citizens: What if my friend were to borrow my mp3 to listen to my music. Is this illegal? What if I were to use legally purchased music in a school video or a home-made movie. Is this illegal? What if my friend borrows my music in a non-digital format for a year, such as a tape or record. Is this illegal? What if I were to record a TV show with copyrighted music playing in the credits – and then I were to replay the recording at a family gathering. Is this illegal? If the answer to all of the above is yes – then unless you’re living naked in the middle of a forest eating gum-nuts – you too are guilty copyright infringement.

So if it’s illegal, and I know it’s wrong and morally incorrect, why do I keep doing it? The answer is not peer-pressure – and whilst I realize that there is no justification, but here’s a little insight into my train of thought: I hear it on the radio. The song. My pupils dilate, saliva builds up under my tongue and my ears vibrate to the heavenly rhythms of the tune that will continue ringing in my ears for hours. I hurriedly find a computer to make a Google search, piecing together half-remembered lyrics so that I can find its name, and satisfy my musical cravings.  And there it is – freely available at my disposal on youtube, the repeat button wearing down with a cacophony of obsessive-compulsive mouse clicks – listening through it again, again and again. At this point, I have the potential to:

1) Bookmark the music video, and return to the youtube link (which is available to listen for free), so that I can continue listening to it every day

2) Download the music illegally on Limewire in a couple of minutes to my iTunes library, so that I can continue listening to it every day

3) Purchase the music legally on iTunes for $2.79, so that I can continue listening to it every day.

4) Ask a friend to put the music on a USB, so that I can add it to my my iTunes library, and continue listening to it every day

5) Use one of the numerous ‘online video downloaders’ and simply download the music track from the youtube video, so that I can continue listening to it every day.

Almost everyone I know, bar a couple of exceptions will have no hesitations of selecting option 2, 4 or 5. This is the contemporary reality of acquiring music, videos and e-books online. Only one person I know risks actually paying for their music, and she is guilty nonetheless of other, far more heinous infringements such as borrowing CDs and recording movies. Which leads to a further question: Why should I stop downloading music if it’s free, easy and (subjectively at least) it doesn’t hurt anybody? And the only acceptable answer is the moral one. Until people become too afraid to download due to widespread punitive measures taken by record companies, there will simply be no practical reason to stop. If you empathize with the artists, if you want to support them and to see them continue with their work, then you will pay them for it. Of course, one could argue: why do Jay-Z and Taylor Swift need my money to add another Lexus to the 7 car garage? Well they probably don’t – but if everyone were to download illegally, even the biggest artists would feel the financial strain.

Yes, nobody is stopping you from adding another single to your dirty music library, but every time you listen to your favourite tracks, the artists can only hope that your guilty conscience will come back to haunt you.