File Sharing Revolutionaries or Cheapskates?

By Jon Newton 3/31/05

As Grokster V MGM begins to unfold in court the story is spreading to the major news outlets. To most of us p2pers, however, this is all old news. MGM and their cohorts have already made the same case in two courts and on both occasions MGM came away the loser. Now the issue has arrived at the highest court in the land, and soon the Supreme Court will put the matter to rest. At least, insofar as p2p companies like Grokster are concerned. For us P2P users, the battle will continue on.

There's been a lot of chatter going on around this case as it pertains to the moral and ethical dilemmas of file sharing. Is it right to download music without paying for it? Are we really boycotting an industry that bloats itself on overpriced product or are we just trying to save our money for other things? Are we revolutionaries or just cheapskates?

Jon Newton

The answer to those questions lies somewhere in between, largely because both sides seem bent on portraying themselves as absolutes. The RIAA may say it has the moral and legal authority to sue file sharers, but is the latest Britney Spears CD really 15 dollars worth of entertainment? We filesharers may say we'd rather support the artists directly, but how many of us have really sent a check to our favorite band after having downloaded their latest album?

The important question that really isn't getting asked, however, is whether or not these lawsuits and discussions are even relevant to the case of file sharing. The fact of the matter is that if you provide people with a means by which to acquire a thing for free rather than pay for it, without repercussion, they'll generally utilize that means. The case of file sharing further complicates matters because, unlike pocketing a CD from a music store without paying, once you've downloaded your music, the source still has their copy.

Is downloading music without paying for it morally wrong? The truth of the matter is, the answer is irrelevant. We define our morals, our values, what is and is not acceptable, based on a variety of things like the society in which we were raised, our parents, our faith, and our life experience. Can so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, all over the world be as morally bankrupt as the RIAA would have us believe? Probably not, particularly because there is another factor in determining what we deem to be morally acceptable. It's technology.

There was a time when pornography was a tremendous issue in this country, even more so than it is today. Larry Flint went all the way to the Supreme Court for it. Now the pictures in Hustler pale in comparison to what one can find on any one of thousands of adult websites all around the Internet. There is a distinct lack of moral outrage over this.

Technologies like cloning and research into stem cells will further alter our moral compass in the future. There may be a time when we find the notion of having a clone of ourselves fabricated and stored for replacement organs completely acceptable. That time is certainly not now.

No government can legislate morality. We need only look to the dismal failure of the war on drugs for proof of this point. Or, just as easily the war on poverty. Where is the corporate outrage over poverty in America? Any wealthy group of people expressing moral outrage over file sharing, surely ought to have the firm moral fiber to get out there and fight poverty. This again is not a question of right or wrong, but a question of relevancy. For the time being a least, poverty in America or anywhere else isn't relevant to giant corporations, but file sharing very much is.

Is it morally right or wrong to own land? We take land ownership for granted, but not all cultures hold the same view. You need only consult America's original property owners for an alternate vantage point. We can own land because technology allows us to measure its boundaries, have a government that stores those measurements in record, and a technologically advanced legal system with a means of determining who gets to own what, should a dispute arise. No one argues over the concept of land ownership, even though the moral ground on which it rests is easily debatable. There is however a practical need for land ownership in our society. So our government, our morals, and our courts make it possible.

Technology grows and changes, and we are forced to change with it. We have to learn to drive cars, use computers, brush our teeth, or use an ATM. Now we as a society must begin to learn what the Internet is doing, and is going to do, to the distribution of art. There is no moral imperative at work when we choose to download music just as there is no moral imperative at work when we record live concerts and create our own bootlegs. Or when we make mixed tapes for our friends. Or when we copy recipes out of a cookbook for our family. The simple truth is, there is technology in place for us to share information and art with each other. The technology comes at little or no cost to us and as a result, we will use it. It is human nature.

The morals of over 300 million people have made the change without blinking, if a change was even required. The RIAA might tell you Itunes is so popular because people want a legal way to download music, but in actuality people want an /easy/ way to download music. These days, for many people, Itunes is easier than Kazaa. If given the choice between free Itunes and pay Itunes, which would people use? The answer is obvious. It's time to stop this debate, because 20 years from now it will be pointless. We will probably look back on it the same way we look back on prohibition. No amount of government control could stop people from drinking.

Where there is a demand for free music and where the technology allows it, it will happen. Right or wrong, it will happen. When someone codes the first easily searchable, well-designed p2p client that incorporates total anonymity, we'll be one step closer. When someone makes the first portable mp3 player capable of local broadcasting and recording, we'll be another step closer.

Many of us have already accepted this future, many of us have not. There's a clear and present demand for free music, just as there has always been. For the first time however, technology and people are prepared to fill that demand. Not only that, but to the astonishment of economists, some people will fill this demand without asking for anything in return.

The RIAA will eventually learn that it cannot sue morality into us. Not because we are a-moral creatures, but because the easier technology makes it for us to do a thing - anything - the more likely we'll be to do it.

The saying goes that one cannot put the genie back in the bottle. In the case of p2p technology, the genie is not only out of the bottle, but growing larger and more advanced every day


Jon Newton is the editor of and is a regular contributer to MP3 Newswire. Jon's site is devoted to the politics of digital music and his insights as well as those of his co-writers can be read there. We urge you to explore it.


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Other MP3 stories:
Pew Internet Study on File Sharing and the Press
What Makes a Journalist? Thoughts on Apple and Think Secret
Can Free Broadcast TV Really Be Napsterized?


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