The Passenger
Morals Schmorals
The New Ethics Of File-Sharing
By Andy Nelson

You can be forgiven if you didn’t watch the Grammys in 2002. If you didn’t, here’s what you missed: lots of awards for Alicia Keys, a big performance by U2, every single artist who helped out on the “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, and one of the most condescending moments in the television life of our generation.

If you did watch the Grammys that year, you know what I’m talking about: Recording Academy Michael Greene’s tirade against file-sharing.

“This illegal file-sharing and ripping of music is pervasive, out of control, and it’s oh-so-criminal,” Greene said, amidst boos from the audience. “Many of the nominees here tonight, especially the new and less established artists, are in immediate danger of being marginalized out of our business.”

I’m not sure which “new and less established artists” Greene was talking about; Alicia Keys’s “music dreams” do not seem to have been “haplessly snared by theft and indifference,” as Greene warned many artists’ would be. But it wasn’t Greene’s rhetoric that troubled me so much. I had stopped downloading music when Napster went under. Rather, it was the off-stage experiment he used to justify his point.

Greene and the Recording Academy had asked three “college-aged kids” named Numair, Stephanie and Ed to spend two days doing nothing but downloading music from the Internet. Greene reported that by the time they were done, they had downloaded 6,000 copyrighted songs for free.

“That’s three kids, folks,” Greene said. “Now multiply that by millions of students and other computer users, and the problem comes into sharp focus.”

Greene’s use of these kids to demonstrate how “out of control” file-sharing had become was like using a free shopping spree to measure the impact of shoplifting on the economy. His example assumed that as soon as users log onto their computers, they become mindless insect drones, unable to do anything but attack the music industry anthill.

Regardless of my mixed feelings about downloading music, I couldn’t accept Greene’s hypothesis. I began to wonder how other people my age - some of whose mp3 libraries actually do rival Numair, Stephanie and Ed’s - felt about the ethics of downloading. Were there files they thought it was wrong to download, rip or burn? If not, how did they respond to Greene’s accusation? Is file-sharing a black-and-white issue of kids versus suits, or is it more complicated?

To find out, I talked to students at three U.S. colleges. Instead of attempting a broad survey - the music industry has taken care of that - I conducted in-depth interviews with a small group, trying to get at the center of not just their feelings about the file-sharing issue, but their ethical systems in general. Two of them are friends-of-friends who I had never met before; one of them I met through a class at Northwestern University.

Ryan Heaney comes from Orland Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. He is now a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago. Heaney decided to major in computer science after transferring out of the seminary program at nearby Loyola University. Heaney said he has questioned his religious beliefs since changing schools, but that faith was an undeniable factor in shaping his ethics. He said the main principle he uses to make ethical decisions is whether his actions would hurt others or not.

While Heaney said he believes we have a duty to obey the law “in the most part,” he also said well-intentioned laws often have unfortunate results.

“I’m not a complete skeptic, but I do have my skepticisms about what the government really tells us,” Heaney said. “My morals are more important than obeying the law.”

Heaney said he downloads about two albums a week from the Internet. He said he tends to avoid the most popular services like Kazaa in favor of alternatives like BitTorrent. Heaney started in high school downloading music even before Napster debuted, but said his college’s high-speed connection has allowed him to download significantly more. He said he enjoys a variety of genres from techno to punk.

Like many music fans, Heaney’s views on downloading heavily depend on his relationships with the bands he likes.

“Watching artists on TV and in interviews with them, lots of them even say themselves that if the Internet wasn’t around, if we weren’t downloading their music, their popularity wouldn’t be where it is today,” he said.

When I asked Heaney if he thought there was any case when file-sharing would always be wrong, he could only provide one example: if an artist made a direct appeal to his or her audience. But he added that the appeal would have to be “direct and true, not something because of a contract.”

Heaney also said his past relationship with an artist affects whether he will buy a CD or not. He recently bought the latest album from Barenaked Ladies, a group he has followed for some time. He didn’t just buy the CD our of loyalty, though.

“It’s really just because I want my collection complete with the guide in the front and whatever,” he said.

A more important factor when Heaney decides to buy CDs is the label that puts them out, he said. He reasons that artists supported by corporate labels can not only afford the loss of a CD sale, but would not receive a significant cut from the sale anyway.

“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t usually download independent label CDs - I usually buy them,” he said. “They’re usually cheaper anyway.”

Jessica Rose Sinsheimer, from Petaluma, Calif., said the label on a record wasn’t so important to her, though. Sinsheimer is a sophomore studying writing and psychology at Sarah Lawrence College near New York City.

“I don’t really pay that much attention,” Sinsheimer said, pointing out that it’s possible for an independent label to succeed while a corporate label struggles.

Sinsheimer’s justification of file-sharing is entirely different from Heaney’s. She said that since she never bought CDs before she started downloading, her actions could not possibly have hurt the music industry or artists. On the infrequent occasions when she had bought CDs before high school, she said, she was usually disappointed by the songs she had not already heard on the radio or from friends. Napster provided a way to avoid this filler material, and she’s been downloading music ever since - about 20 songs a week, she said, but rarely entirely albums.

While Sinsheimer recognizes that artists could not make music if they received no support at all, she said she doubted that would happen any time soon and sees no reason to change her behavior.

“There’s certainly going to be people who say, ‘I don’t care, they can starve, I just got free music,’” Sinsheimer said. “Ideally every artist would have the means of creating as much art as possible throughout their lifetime. That’s the main concern for me as to the morality of it.”

That’s the reason Sinsheimer said she goes out of her way to support local bands who haven’t been signed to a label yet.

“They’re just getting off the ground,” she said. “You don’t know that a local band is going to succeed or completely stop playing because they can’t afford to anymore and then they would have to go back to their day jobs. Musicians that are already supported by corporate labels don’t have to worry about that sort of thing.”

Sinsheimer said she doubted the motives of many popular artists, adding that she could not see how it would be wrong to download music from “one of those stupid boy bands.”

“That kind of music is made to make money, and so it does,” she said. “They already have so much money that it’s not going to make a big difference.”

Heaney also said that it seems difficult to condemn someone for downloading ubiquitous pop music.

“If I can turn on three different radio stations and hear it at any point,” he said, then it hardly makes a difference whether he downloads it to his hard drive or not.

Sinsheimer and Heaney’s point about pop music seems to illustrate a fundamental difference between this generation’s feelings about music ownership and those of the past. Since the proliferation of sheet music in the 19th century, the information in a piece of music has been inextricably bound to a piece of property. It would have been hard to think of it being any other way. But this generation, raised with computers and the Internet, has an entirely different conception of what information is. Instead of thinking of is as property, we think of it as something existing in open space, separated from our minds by nothing more than access privileges.

When I asked Heaney and Sinsheimer how downloading a CD is different from stealing one from a record store, they both cited this change in the nature of music.

“I don’t think it’s the same thing as stealing something from the store because you’re not necessarily stealing the jewel case or the actual physical item,” Heaney said. “You’re not getting anything physical out of it.”

Eventually, though, Heaney conceded that what he actually pays for when he buys a CD is information. He offered another interesting justification for downloading - one that I think is more common than record companies realize.

“If I make a ton of money ... and I can buy anything I want, why not buy the CD so I can have the nice jewel case and stuff like that?” he said. “The fact is that I don’t have a huge amount of cash to buy all these albums.”

Heaney is simply stating what anyone over the age of 18 already knows: college students are freeloaders, and most of us have to be. We actively seek free food, free beer, free rides and a free place to sleep when we’re out of town. That doesn’t mean we don’t expect to pay for any of those things later in life. It might be that there is a finite, constant amount of money young people are able to spend on music. If they download music in excess of that amount but still spend the money, it would have no end effect on the music industry. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, file-sharing might be easily justified - especially if expanding one’s love for music in college will lead to greater expenditures later in life.

This is the way a number of people view file-sharing: as a sort of musical education for a later consumer life. I asked each of my interview subjects whether they would download all the music made in the past 20 years, assuming that were possible. Sinsheimer answered yes, but with an interesting addendum:

“Then I’d probably discover artists that I like and want to buy their CDs.” File-sharing, she said, “is the easiest way to become culturally literate these days.”

But [name withheld]*, a junior majoring in cognitive science and psychology at Northwestern, would undoubtedly reject the consumer model.

“Ultimately, I think the current system is doomed to fail,” he said. “I can’t see a viable method of supporting it, and I don’t think that great of a good comes from it.”

[withheld] comes from the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago. He started downloading music in junior high, and now says it opened up a whole new world to him.

“My family didn’t have a lot of money for me to go out and buy CDs,” he said. “People copy-pasted and ripped CDs back in the day. They wanted to find out more about music. This whole new world of music was opened to me.”

[withheld] said he used to download up to 100 songs a week, but his intake has significantly dwindled since then.

“After a while, you run out of ideas,” he said.

Here’s the way [withheld] sees things: the music industry is in a state of crisis that cannot be reversed. Even if they can keep a lid on file-sharing for now through lawsuits and commercial downloading services like iTunes, free music will eventually become so accessible and acceptable that the record companies will not be able to make a profit. At the same time, independent artists (earning money through concerts, merchandise or some other means) will release tracks digitally whenever they feel like it, and their popularity will increase by word-of-mouth. No record companies, no suits.

This idea is compelling for the same reason it is risky. It envisions a significant change in the way society is structured. After all, even if file-sharing is wrong, it’s hard to argue it’s wrong for all times and all people, in the way murder or rape is. It could only be wrong because it violates standards of fairness, legality and ownership in our contemporary society, which will surely change in the future. The trouble is that unless enough people believe the old standards are worth violating, the new ones cannot emerge.

But the only alternative to this sort of revolution, [withheld] argues, would be much less appealing, even to music executives. Because of the ease with which programmers can bypass technical restrictions on file-sharing and release the hacks to the public, the government would need nearly Orwellian police powers to regulate file-sharing.

“Morals, schmorals - the system’s going to fall unless you want Big Brother,” [withheld] said. “The hackers will always be one step ahead of the authorities.”

Of course, not everyone is rooting for [withheld]’s revolution, and many of them have good reasons to oppose it. To get the other side of the story, I talked to Howie Singer, vice president of technology at Warner Music.

Singer said that he understands that people have always shared music through copied tapes and CDs. It’s the wide reach of the Internet that makes the current practice unfair, he said.

“Would it be ethical for you to burn 299 CDs and put them outside the door with a sign and tell everyone going by to take one?” he asked. “That’s what you’re doing when you open up your share drive.”

The impact of decreasing CD sales has already stung at his company, Singer said.

“There are lots of people who used to work at Warner Music who don’t work here anymore,” he said.

Singer is even skeptical of such seemingly benign acts as sending an mp3 to a friend in order to encourage them to buy a CD.

“Ethically, I don’t think they have the right to do that,” he said. “We put our free samples of things that expire because the fact is you can save [an mp3] to your hard drive. ... Lots of people sample music and decide to buy it, and a lot of people also sample all this music and just save it to their hard drive.”

But Singer does not come off as some sort of evangelist for copyright law. He recognizes that people will break the rules. Instead, he appeals to a standard of fairness. He thinks the success of legal downloading services like iTunes shows that if the music industry makes a fair offer on digital music, people will come around.

“There are a lot of people who think the offer the industry is making in terms of selection, rules and price is a fair one,” he said.

Singer said one of the reasons Warner waited until recently to pursue lawsuits against individual file-sharers (instead of software companies) was because company executives wanted music lovers to have legitimate digital music options. But he still fears the industry may have waited too long to prevent a crisis.

If the file-sharing trend cannot be controlled, Singer said, the music industry in the United States might find itself in the same position it does in third-world countries or the former Soviet Union. Piracy in those places is so pervasive, he said, that many labels no longer attempt to invest in their markets.

“It’s a conceivable outcome,” Singer said. “That’s why the industry describes the situation in such a dire state. ... Perhaps the music industry waited too long and didn’t take things as seriously as we should have.”

But Singer said he is confident that if people are thinking about the ethics of downloading, it can only help the industry.

“People are conveniently ignoring the ethics,” Singer said. “If people think about the ethics of the question, that’s a step in the right direction.”

The future of digital music is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the recording industry will remain largely intact, and online sales will reap a profit. Perhaps [withheld] is right, and the major labels are doomed. Or maybe the end result will be somewhere in between, a confusing morass of lawsuits, new music services and online price wars.

But Singer is undoubtedly right about one thing - in the age of the Internet, the power of every choice is multiplied. In the past, the consequences of making a tape for a friend or bootlegging a show were minimal. Now those decisions could influence hundreds of strangers and potentially change the relationship between artists and music fans throughout the world.

None of the possible futures of the music industry is inevitable. Instead, its future rests with us, the users of the technology that forced us to ask all these questions in the first place.

Because I am still interested in those futures, though, I asked each of the three students I interviewed whether they thought their feelings would change by the time they reached 30, and what they might tell future generations about the subject. Heaney said that if he had kids, he would try to educate them on the differences between artists who need support and those who already have it made.

“I don’t know how well it would work, but I would try,” he said.

Sinsheimer said she would encourage her children to think about how they are affecting the world at large.

“I would put it that they need to really look at the consequences of their actions,” she said. “They need to recognize that artists are doing this for a living, and if everyone acted as they did it would create a problem for the artist. ... I do think it would be important to emphasize that if people are just starting out it’s important to support them first. ... They can come to their own conclusions about whether it’s okay to download from people who are already financially stable.”

As for [withheld], he said his first consideration would be for the kid’s safety.

“It depends on the laws,” he said. “If it was dangerous, I’d say, ‘That’s dangerous, don’t do that.’ If it’s safe, I’d say, ‘Have fun, Timmy.’”

*The source requested that The Passenger remove this name from its website. On consultation with the writer, The Passenger determined that it would be acceptable but not preferable to do so. In the interest of protecting the source, the name has been removed. Questions? Please e-mail Editor-in-Chief Graham Webster.