Rebirth of Reason


There's No Such Thing As a Free Download
by Andrew Bissell

A Pepsi/iTunes Super Bowl commercial featured a motley group of kids who were “prosecuted for downloading music off of the Internet.” And thanks to the free song she’ll be winning in one of every three Pepsi bottles, one of the teens haughtily proclaims, “I’m here to announce in front of everyone, we’re still going to download music free off of the Internet. And there’s not a thing anyone can do about it.” Her arrogance is typical of those who use online file-sharing programs to commit mass piracy, and have reacted to recent RIAA lawsuits in a manner resembling a spoiled child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

There’s a veritable laundry list of rationalizations file sharers offer to excuse this theft. “CDs only cost a few cents to produce,” they complain, as if music wrote, recorded, promoted, and distributed itself. They promise, “I would buy music if I could afford it,” as if not having enough money to purchase a good entitled one to take it without paying. “Most CDs have one good song and a dozen tracks of dreck,” they assert, indicating both poor taste in music and a belief that record labels have no right to determine how to package and sell their own property. “Record companies exploit artists,” they intone as they bilk artists out of their deserved royalties. Some offer their opinion that “CDs just aren’t worth $17,” revealing with this sentiment alone the extent of their appreciation for music, an unwillingness to make the minimal effort required to find lower prices, and a bizarre notion that they should steal any product that does not satisfy their own arbitrary price ceilings.

Then comes the classic anti-business argument, stated quite succinctly in a pamphlet on the Simpsons episode where Homer gets an illegal cable hookup: “Myth: Cable piracy is wrong. Fact: Cable companies are big faceless corporations which makes it okay!” Replace the word “cable” with “music” and you’ve got one of the Kazaa crowd’s staple talking points. In the real record industry competition is intense, careers are tenuous, profit margins are mediocre and growth is slow or stagnant. And even if this weren’t the case, at which point does a company become large enough to loot without remorse or guilt? Why do success and riches condemn companies and artists to have their profits eaten away in an online free-for-all?

Some have even gone so far as to claim that the record industry is a price-fixing cartel, and cast downloading music as a sort of vigilante justice. Where is the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division on this anyway? They’ve shown their penchant for tilting at media “monopoly” windmills in their case against Microsoft, so if a cartel really existed, one would expect them to bring down the legal hammer on the record companies. 

When all else fails, file-sharing advocates resort to blaming the victim. They explain that revenue losses to piracy are really the industry’s fault. You see, record companies haven’t “updated their business model,” or “come to grips with the reality of MP3s.” I doubt that record companies have any problem with the idea of MP3s as such, but the viable business model that can compete with “free and easy to get” simply does not exist. Even Apple’s iTunes, the most successful pay-to-download service so far, is a loss leader, and only makes money for the company by driving sales of the iPod portable MP3-player.

Decentralized, peer-to-peer file sharing programs like Kazaa left the RIAA with no choice but to pursue legal action against individual offenders. For this, they have been accused of using an unfair legal cudgel to bully defendants into submission. But the RIAA doesn’t have to offer amnesty to anyone who signs an agreement promising to delete pirated songs and not to illegally share music. That they do shows they are more interested in preventing further piracy than punishing past offenders or recovering monetary damages.

To put the Pepsi ad in perspective, Annie Leith, who happily promised to keep on downloading music, will have to consume an average of 2,880 20-oz. bottles of Pepsi by March 31 to win enough free downloads from iTunes to equal the 960 songs the RIAA sued her for pirating with Kazaa. Additionally, iTunes will be covering the cost of each song. No wonder the RIAA applauded the commercial.
In the end, Hugh Prestwood, a country music songwriter, has crystallized the most important point about music piracy in his address to file-sharers: “…You have unthinkingly devalued songs to the extent that you perceive them as trifles - something of little value to be partaken and enjoyed at no cost.” The belief that one can—or even deserves—to get something for nothing is by far the most insidious lie perpetuated by online file-sharing. The RIAA has every right to fight it tooth, nail, and gavel.
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