It’s well-known that some of history’s greatest artists and writers never lived to see their talent recognized; Van Gogh, Dickenson, El Greco and Bach all died before their work gained world-wide success. More than a century after Van Gogh’s death, however, a more insipid lack of artistic appreciation has come along, aided by the Internet. Now, rather than not recognizing artistic talent as it comes along, we do – and then we steal it and help distribute millions of copies of it.
You know what I’m talking about: music, movies, photos and news are all available for free, at your fingertips if you only search hard enough. Even as the Napster era ended, BitTorrent sites like The Pirate Bay sprung up to allow users to freely and easily share media files amongst each other.
During the past decade, online piracy has become rampant and a blatant disregard for artistic copyright socially acceptable.
A 2004 study commissioned by the Gospel Music Association found that only 8 percent of American teens express moral opposition to music piracy. Of the teens surveyed, 65 percent said they embraced a “whatever works” doctrine regarding music acquisition, either believing that music piracy is a non-issue or that CD burning and downloading are not equally immoral.
It seems that people have two basic rationalizations for why they pirate music, movies and other digital media: a) “because I want to” and b) “because I can.”
Even given the entitlement mentality fast breeding in America, wanting something obviously does not make it yours to have. I would love a new sports car, for instance, but accept the fact that I’ll have to pay for it if I want it. Nor does the fact that music is easy to download make it ethical to take advantage of the system. Many things in life are easy to do with the promise of monetary gains, but many are also unethical, if not downright illegal. If you walk into Best Buy and steal CDs and DVDs, it is theft. If you go online and download albums and movies, it is still theft. The fact that you want it but can’t afford it and that the means are available does not justify the ends. Music and films may be intangibles, but stealing them is no less real than stealing anything else.
Another popular rationalization for pirating music is that it somehow “helps” artists by promoting their music to a wider audience. I don’t doubt this is sometimes true, especially in the case of indie artists who gain popularity by word of mouth, but that’s a choice to be made by the artists themselves, not anyone else. No third party has the right to decide for the creator of the music that his or her work should be freely distributed.
Radiohead, for example, conducted an interesting experiment last year when they made “In Rainbows” available on their Web site for the price of a voluntary donation of any amount. Even though the album could technically be downloaded for free from their site, it was reported that thousands of illegal downloads were made elsewhere on the Web. What a slap in the face; not only are some of Radiohead’s so-called fans so cheap that they won’t pay for the band’s album, but they won’t even do them the courtesy of coming to their own site to take it.
Whichever way you try to rationalize it, filesharing is unethical and has a very negative economic effect on the entertainment industry. Numerous studies have looked at the link between file sharing and record sales and have found a negative correlation. As further proof, worldwide sales of recorded music sales tanked last year. Reuters reported that the United States led the drop-off, with a 31 percent decrease in physical format sales compared to the previous year. Even though digital sales did increase by 16.5 percent, that still leaves a 19 percent decrease in sales overall.
Online piracy isn’t just theft, it’s theft of the artistic talent we claim to value the most. The art, music and films a society consumes are the hallmarks of its values. Yet by a twist of irony and with the help of the Internet, those very talents are now being stolen, savage-like, by the very people who think of themselves as sophisticated music lovers and movie buffs.
When Metallica filed suit against Napster back in 2000, band frontman and drummer Lars Ulrich spoke out fiercely against music piracy. “With each project, we go through a grueling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives” Ulrich said in a press release, reported in Wired magazine. “We take our craft – whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork – very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy – a.k.a taking something that doesn’t belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information – whether it’s music, videos, photos, or whatever – is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods,” he continued.
Copyright and other intellectual property laws exist because they protect the inventors and other creators. Once that protection is lost — and anyone is freely able to reproduce what was originally their creation —little incentive remains to continue innovating. It’s a simple concept, but an important one.
Yet in recent years, alongside the generally complacent public stance towards piracy, a number of anti-copyright movements have sprung up that actually oppose the whole concept of copyright protection. The Pirate Bay encourages an anti-copyright culture amongst its members and has been linked with The League of Noble Peers, an anti-copyright organization. Others, like independent film director Jim Jarmusc, who has been outspoken about lawsuits aimed at enforcing copyright, believe that because they can’t come up with original ideas themselves, they should leach of the ideas of others: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent,” Jarmusch told MovieMaker magazine in a 2004 interview.
The Recording Industry Association of America launched a notoriously tough anti-piracy campaign a few years ago that started to go after individuals who illegally downloaded music files, and received an enormous amount of public backlash for it. Apparently people don’t like it when the big corporations actually start going after the “little guys” stealing their stuff. But why shouldn’t they? Perhaps most famously, the association started threatening legal action against college students who engage in file sharing, threatening some with potential fines of $750 to up to $150,000 for every illegally downloaded song. In reaction to the legal threats, organizations like Students for Free Culture sprung up on college campuses around the country, advocating for looser copyright laws and arguing that filesharing technology makes it impossible for the recording industry to enforce copyrights anyway.
These organizations believe that copyright hinders “freedom of knowledge” — but fail to admit that the works under copyright didn’t exist until their creators invented them. No musician or other artist is obligated to create anything merely for the altruistic purposes of sharing their talents. For most, their music is a livelihood and they expect to earn a living from it. Similarly, their record labels are in the entertainment business, and have a duty to the artists they represent to protect them from those who steal and distribute their works.
Be better than that. Give value to what you value. If you expect great music, movies and television to continue being created for your entertainment, reward the talents that create them. If you didn’t pay, you haven’t earned the right to enjoy.
Marlize van Romburgh is a journalism senior and an economics minor and the Mustang Daily editor in chief.