Brown Logo

The News Service
38 Brown Street / Box R
Providence RI 02912

401 863-2476

Distributed August 18, 2003
Contact Mark Nickel

About 690 Words

Marc Perlman
Why file-sharing doesn’t feel like stealing

Americans are more likely to obey laws they perceive to be morally right, laws they believe were enacted through an impartial legislative process. The Recording Industry Association of America, among the wealthiest and most influential of industry lobbyists, has a long way to go to convince Americans that laws governing file-sharing were enacted for the good of the general public. It’s easier to sue.

Editors: A 1,200-word version of this op-ed is also available.

Like an army of occupation, the music industry is about to take the battle against file-sharing into the homes of civilians. As the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) prepares to sue its own customers, it’s worth asking how the estimated 57 million downloaders – surely the largest group ever assembled for the purposes of organized law-breaking – feel about the morality of downloading.

Last May a survey by Edison Media Research found that about half of all file-traders had qualms about file-sharing, but did it anyway. In this they reflect the ambivalence of our society, which for years has been sending mixed signals about downloading. Shawn Fanning, the inventor of Napster, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In an editorial that ran during the Napster trial, the Wall Street Journal called on the “kids” to “keep writing that software.” When RIAA announced it would sue individual file-sharers, told its readers where to find new programs that promise anonymous downloading. Nor did the business community present a united front – after all, hardware manufacturers and service providers stand to profit when consumers want to transmit and store enormous files.

The damage downloading inflicts has little gut-level impact on the moral reflexes. An MP3 file is a close approximation of what economists call a nonrivalrous good: You can “share” it with me without giving up possession of it. So the “theft” of digital music does not deprive anyone else of anything – or so it may seem.

Of course, fans who download rather than buy CDs are eroding the market for recordings. But market harm is more abstract than the loss of a physical object and virtually impossible to quantify. Does each downloaded MP3 equal one CD that will never be sold? Obviously not; file-traders are well aware that they download a lot of music they would never pay for.

Nevertheless, CD sales figures have dropped, and though we can’t say how much of the decline is due to file-trading, shrinking record companies will sign fewer new bands. Aren’t downloaders denying career opportunities to the next generation of musicians?

Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Americans let their short-term concern for their pocketbooks distract them from the public good. Remember the California tax revolt of 1978: Voters knew that their tax dollars returned to them in the form of social services. Yet the majority somehow convinced themselves that government services could be maintained even as they slashed government revenues.

Finally, downloaders condemn their condemners. This type of argument is legally irrelevant, but it is frequently heard in public life. For example, in 1977 the conservative writer Victor Lasky published the best-selling It Didn’t Start With Watergate, to show that Republican “dirty tricks” had been common practices under Democratic administrations. File-traders use similar arguments to paint the music industry as unworthy of their patronage. They note how the Federal Trade Commission accused RIAA’s members of collusion to keep CD prices high. They bemoan the industry’s influence on the legislative process. In a scathing speech publicized on, Courtney Love told the story of a Congressional aide who quietly amended an unrelated bill to enhance the power of the recording companies. The aide was promptly hired away by RIAA as a lobbyist. (Congress repealed the provision once the story came to light.) Downloaders aren’t pirates, Love concluded; the recording companies are the real pirates.

It is this perception that poses the greatest long-term threat to the anti-downloading campaign. Social psychologist Tom R. Tyler has argued that people are more likely to obey laws they believe have been enacted through an impartial legislative process. Yet the story of copyright legislation (recently reviewed by Jessica Litman in her book, Digital Copyright) looks very much like a story of deals negotiated between industry lobbyists – among whom RIAA has become one of the wealthiest. To inspire greater respect for our copyright laws, RIAA will need to convince us that these laws were designed to promote the welfare of all Americans, not to create special profit opportunities for the few.

Unfortunately, making this case before the bar of public opinion will be harder than filing a few thousand lawsuits.

Marc Perlman is an ethnomusicologist at Brown University.

News Service Home  |  Top of File  |  e-Subscribe  |  Op-Ed Service  |  Brown Home Page