Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Napster All Over Again

A recent story in the local Boston paper Boston Now about students at MIT illegally downloading and sharing music caught my interest, partly because of the copyright infringement aspect and partly because of the fact that this behavior seems to be so widespread because people just don't think it's wrong.

The story says how students at Boston college and universities (MIT is the main focus of the story) are being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for copyright infringement. The students are downloading music files using peer-to-peer file sharing networks like LimeWire. I'm not talking about things like iTunes, where you have to pay to download tracks; in the eyes of the RIAA, those sites are totally legit. I'm talking about the types of sites that are the children and grandchildren of the original downloading site, Napster. Some students who have been sued are settling with the RIAA and paying about $3,000 in settlement, while others are paying a lot more in attorney's fees to fight these lawsuits.

You can see the pre-lawsuit letter from the RIAA to targeted college campuses here.

The way in which the RIAA is going after the students, however, is considered suspect. Their method for gathering evidence against the students consists of an investigator downloading a user's song at random from one of the peer-to-peer networks and listening to it. And apparently by listening to it, the investigator can determine if it was illegally downloaded or not.


Okay, so I'm not sold on this methodology; how would just listening to a song determine if it's illegally downloaded or not? Do these songs sound different in some way? It seems suspect to me. But I feel like the real issue here is the copyright infringement issue.

Yes, it's legally wrong for a person to download, use, and share copyright-protected music without paying for it. Despite its creative, somewhat intangible nature, a song is a consumer product, and thus by its very nature it needs to be paid for. Unless an artist or band decides to make its songs available for free download and distribution (which some upstart bands do in order to promote awareness about their music), it is illegal to distribute and acquire their music without paying for it. Obviously people who make their livelihoods from producing these creative products find it grossly unfair for others to, in essence, steal their work (stealing is, by definition, "to take (the property of another or others) without permission or right, esp. secretly or by force" [dictionary.com]). But the people doing the stealing (in this case, downloading and sharing music files) don't usually consider what they're doing illegal or wrong.

I think this is because of the very nature of the internet. On the internet, millions of users worldwide exchange and access such a breadth of information for free already that it almost seems logical for these people to do the same thing with music files, or with things like the texts of books or copies of digital images for instance. The internet's very nature makes it difficult, though not impossible, to police its millions of users as well as what they're using and how they're using it.

And the fact that the RIAA is going after people, many of them college students who don't fully understand the nature or repercussions of their actions, makes a lot of people really angry. It pits these people against the RIAA. And because of this, it actually makes people more prone to engaging in the very behaviors (illegal file sharing) that the RIAA is trying to discourage and put an end to.

The problem isn't going to go away, especially as increasingly more parts of our lives become digitized: cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and more. A quick look around the RIAA website shows that they're continuing to go about this in a dissuade people from downloading illegally and going after those who do kind of way. I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good solution, or a solution at all, but I can't really think of any other solution, to be perfectly honest. How can you stop all people everywhere from doing what they're doing? I acknowledge that illegally downloading and sharing music is wrong, but I also admit that I myself used to do so many years ago in college (and by "many" I mean "five," back in the days when Napster was still a newborn and still free). I can see both sides of the coin here.

What do people think? Is there a better way to police the use of music? Is there really anything the RIAA can or should do after a CD is off the store shelves and in a consumer's hands? Technically a person can make a copy of a CD onto a personal computer or MP3 player for personal use, but they can't distribute it--such as making it available on the internet for others to download or giving the copied CD to a friend. But is this preventing people from hearing new music? For instance, I've just asked a friend to copy an album for me that I already own but have lost the disc of and which I didn't have any other copy of. I already paid the band, many moons ago, for the disc; I already know the songs. I miss them. I want to listen to them again. But I am annoyed at the thought of repurchasing the CD because as soon as I do so I'm sure I'll find it somewhere. So I asked my friend to make a copy of her copy of the CD for me. Is that a horrible thing? Does that make me a criminal? I admit that I no longer use peer-to-peer networks to download music; in fact, I haven't downloaded music using a peer-to-peer network since I graduated college in 2002, just as the Napster issue was starting to come to a head. The only music I've downloaded since then are songs written by a friend of mine who allowed me to download them for my own use and songs that were available for free download as part of some sort of band promotion. While this keeps me from discovering new music (my musical tastes and collection halt abruptly in 2002), it just doesn't seem worth the risk to engage in peer-to-peer file sharing, because I don't want to get sued.

Should the RIAA just leave people alone? Is downloading really hurting the music industry? What do people think? Are downloaders criminals or just doing what comes naturally when you use the internet? Leave me your thoughts.

Check out the RIAA website here.


john said...

Actually, it's technically not illegal to download and listen to the songs. For the same reason it's not stealing when you hear a song in a restaurant or shopping mall, it's not wrong for a person to hear a song off the internet. Morally? Depends.

Sharing on the other hand is a violation of copyright. It's important to remember the differences since some want you to believe both are illegal. It's about distribution not use.

Raquel said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I should have made my phrasing "download and share"--meaning that a person had to do both in order to be considered in violation of the RIAA rules--clearer throughout my blog entry.

And I suppose that since many people use P2P networks to download and listen to music, they're in the wrong, at least in the RIAA's eyes, because they acquired that song from another P2P user--a user who is sharing downloadable music, regardless of its source--and the sharing part is what they seem to think is so horribly against the law.

Anonymous said...

Here's an example of blatant illegal sharing of music, sponsored by a company that just raised over $7m.

Just go here:


That's right, about 100 Beatles tunes free to be downloaded as ringtones on your phone.

Do a search of U2 or Green Day .... 100's of people giving away copyrighted music they do not own.

In come cases even SELLING music they do not own:

TUPAC ( DEAR MOMMA ) ($1.99)

Amazing. What in the hell were the VC's thinking when these funded these clowns?

Lance Bledsoe said...

Hi Raquel,

I'm curious if you're familiar with the writings of Mike Masnick of techdirt.com. He has a lot of (I think) interesting things to say about copyright and intellectual property, especially the differences between intellectual property and other kinds of property.

In particular, he is a big proponent of the idea that the internet in particular is an example of a technology which is, in effect, forcing the adoption of new business models. In a world where certain previously scarce commodities (e.g., recorded music) are now essentially infinite (i.e., they can be reproduced and distributed easily and quickly at a cost of approximately zero), the way we think about businesses which deal in these commodities must change.