That is the question…
If you’ve heard the word “Napster” in the past decade, then you know it’s become irrevocably associated with the systematic destruction of the entertainment industry. The claims about torrenting ruining the financial state of the entertainment industry echo the sentiment expressed by Jack Valenti when he said before a court in 1982, “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
There is no doubt that piracy is perceived as an immoral act, particularly by the people suffering through the financial woes of running a billion dollar industry. As for the question of the morality behind sharing media, your answer would elicit many reactions that can extend from “you’re stealing from the artists” to “want me to burn you a copy of (insert artist’s name here)?”
David Pogue, a well-known technology columnist for Yahoo Tech, commented on this issue in a blog post for the NY Times. He attributed the current spectrum of grey areas surrounding piracy to the younger generation. The more interesting aspect of his article was his experience during one of his talks where he asked the audience a variety of questions to gauge their opinions on sharing or ripping media.
Some of these questions included the following:
- “I borrow a CD from the library. Who thinks this is wrong?”
- “I own a certain CD, but it got scratched. So I borrow the same CD form the library and rip it to my computer.”
- “I record a movie off of HBO using my DVD burner. Who thinks that’s wrong?” (He mentioned about how time-shifting is completely legal, though in the same sentence mentions morality)
This next question was dropped at a different venue for a college, but illustrates a contrast in comparison to the other questions asked:
- “You want a movie or an album. You don’t want to pay for it. So you download it. Who thinks that might be wrong?”
After this question was asked, only 2 our of the 500 attendees raised their hand in agreement. The conclusion of Pogue’s blog was that there is a definitive generational gap on those who think that piracy is morally wrong and those who don’t.
One thing Pogue fails to realize is that when it comes to media piracy, the morality argument is a shaky ground on which to place your soapbox.
Though what exactly does the morality argument involve?
The RIAA and a number of other organizations have made sure to pound it into our heads that the artists must be paid. This is an interesting statement considering that some of these organizations have been known to not pay artists with piracy settlement money, lobby to have royalty rates reduced and underpay on royalties. All-in-all, they have shown themselves to be pillars of
morality self-interest when it comes to making sure artists get their due.
William Patry, a copyright lawyer for over 30 years, made an interesting comment in a blog post entitled “Copyright and Morals.” Alluding to the tactics of self-invested politicians he said, “Morality is used in the Copyright Wars as a way to cover up the inability to justify expansion of rights on economic grounds.”
So where does that leave us in the discussion of piracy as an issue of morality?
If anything it makes the situation more confusing when the people dictating the moral terms are engaging in the same behavior, albeit legal behavior, of the those they decry and working for their own self-interests.
Also, I don’t believe there are many people out there who don’t support paying artists for their work, even if they’re Taylor Swift and completely unaware of how Spotify works.
On the moral flipside, and despite what the RIAA would have you believe, piracy does carry some benefits for artists. For instance, a study done by the Canadian Government found that, “When assessing the P2P downloading population, there was ‘a strong positive relationship between P2P file sharing and CD purchasing. That is, among Canadians actually engaged in it, P2P file sharing increases CD purchases’.”
Another study brings up an interesting point in its introduction noting that, “File sharing lowers the price of music, which draws in low-valuation individuals who would otherwise not have purchased albums.” It also puts a dent in the RIAA narrative stating, “We find that file sharing has only had a limited effect on record sales. After instrumenting for downloads, the estimated effect of file sharing on sales is not statistically distinguishable from zero.”
There’s also the matter of sampling. If someone is unsure of an album, they can download it to check the quality of the music. If the music is terrible, then there’s a good chance they would not have purchased the CD in the first place.
Now, what do you think? Is media piracy a definitive moral issue or is it more complex?