There’s been a lot of talk recently about the internet and piracy and SOPA and government and big corporation collusion to censor the internet etc. And while quite frankly I don’t know the ins and outs of the whole SOPA thing, I must admit to a feeling of cynicism about a lot of the views expressed on behalf of, and in support of the file sharers.
I must say I still can’t see this illegal file sharing thing as anything other than thievery. In my opinion there’s a piece of convenient moral myopia going on regarding the illegal downloading of music (and films for that matter). In a weird parallel moral universe it seems to be that theft is not theft in so many people’s minds, simply because so many people are doing it. The kind of moral dancing on the head of a pin that people are doing to justify illegal downloading of other people’s property is quite frankly bullshit. It’s self-serving convenient bullshit that suits the people who are stealing the property so they don’t have to feel bad about themselves, or so that they don’t recognise themselves as being thieves.
And they are thieves.
All the arguments put forward in support of illegally downloading are self-serving at best. You cannot get away from the simple fact that the illegal downloading of files is theft.
If I own something and you take it from me without my knowledge or permission, you have stolen it. It’s that simple. The fact that I may be helpless to do anything about it, or not even know that you’ve stolen it doesn’t make it any more morally right on your part to take it. In fact it’s arguably even worse.
The fact that it’s possible for you to steal it doesn’t make it right either. If you saw a car door open, and the keys of the car were in the ignition, would you steal it? If the answer is yes, then there’s nothing more to talk about, but if the answer is no, but you would take an online music file illegally, then maybe you need to have a rummage around in your sense of morality and see what you come up with.
The fact that everybody does it doesn’t make it right either. If I have an item of value in my house and someone comes in and steals it, that person is a thief. If I have a thousand items of value in my house and a thousand people come in and each steal one of my items does that make each one of them any less of a thief than the solitary thief? Does the fact that so many of them are involved in the theft make each one of them less morally culpable?
At what point does the mass theft of someone’s property cease to become theft? How many pieces of music must be stolen by how many thieves before the thieves become no longer thieves, but people who just ‘love music’? Is there a tipping point? Is 100? 1000? 10,000? A million? At what point does morality change because of the numbers involved? Because I’m damned if I know!
Big Companies Are Fair Game
And this whole argument that goes - ‘this is just the big record companies trying to protect their big profits while exploiting their artists’ is, on moral grounds, also complete bullshit. So it’s OK now to steal from a big company because they are a big company? I have no love for Verve, or EMI, or Sony – none of these companies would give me the time of day if I were to try and get them to release my music. Are they, or have they been involved in the exploitation of their artists? In some cases, certainly. Does that make it OK to steal their products? No!
If it’s OK to steal from Sony or Universal because they are a big company, then fuck it, let’s steal from Apple! Let’s steal iPads and Powerbooks and iPhones. Apple are a big company, (they recently announced $6 billion profit on sales of $28 billion), they’ve been allegedly involved in dubious work practices with their workers in China, and they’re interested in protecting their profits. So by the logic of the argument used regarding stealing from big record and media companies, it should be OK to steal from Apple too – right?
This ‘big companies are fair game for theft’ argument is unsustainable from any standpoint other than self-serving hypocrisy. The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that there seems to have been some kind of moral bypass brought into being. Nobody has yet managed to explain to me how illegally taking somebody else’s property is not theft. Perhaps, in the case of music and film downloading, it’s because the tracks or movies themselves have no physical manifestation – there’s nothing you can hold in your hand unless you burn it to a CD or DVD. Perhaps if the music or film were a physical entity people would be less likely to steal them, or , it might be more accurate to say, people would be less able to ignore the fact that they were stealing them. Because it takes only the smallest amount of reflection to see that illegal downloading of copyright material is theft.
It doesn’t suit most people to admit that, because you know what? Then they’d have to pay for music!! The horror! And you know what else? How could they possibly afford to put 3000 tunes on their iPods if they had to pay the people that produced the music? I mean – is it fair that all these listeners should have to pay for the pleasure they receive from this music? Is it fair that the people who actually created the music and/or paid for the cost of producing it should be demanding some small payment from the people who use this music for pleasure? The nerve of these musicians and film makers – demanding money for the use of their work! How selfish can you be!?
The Candy Bar Comparison
Someone recently said that legally buying a track on iTunes costs less than a candy bar, and a candy bar only lasts 5 minutes. Yet people will happily pay out the money for a candy bar (and most people would never contemplate stealing a candy bar....), but they balk at the idea of paying for a piece of music that will potentially give them endless pleasure. How did we arrive at this point where music, films, software – all the products of creative minds – are items that people not only will happily take without permission, but will actually resent the idea of having to pay for? I’ve noticed that when you ask people if they’ve paid for the music/film/software they’re playing/watching/using, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy, or even become indignant at the very idea of being asked to pay for these items.
I’m not coming at this from a holier-than-thou perspective – my own feelings on intellectual property is that it should be the property of the person who produces it, but I’m not a great believer, for example, in this intellectual property then passing on to the descendants of the original artist, so they can make money out of it, despite having no hand act or part in the production of it. If someone copies a recording from a long dead artist it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s still illegal, but morally, (in my opinion, and I accept that others may differ), it’s in a completely different category to stealing from the living artist who’s trying to make a living from his or her art. Have I ever been given a recording of something by a living artist that I haven’t paid for? Occasionally, yes I have – but in general I will always try to buy the recording in order to support the artist. And this is especially true if I admire their music. And at least I’m not trying to fool myself – I know it was wrong to have taken it, and in general I steer clear of this stuff. It doesn’t feel right at all. I have never deliberately illegally downloaded a music track or a film – and I never will.
The worst thing about the free-for-all of music downloading is that in the end, the biggest victims of this are not the Lady Ga Ga’s or the REM’s or suchlike, but the musicians who are trying to exist on the margins. In jazz it was always difficult to make small record labels work economically – now it’s impossible. Small independent jazz labels are dropping like flies – the return on any investment in the music is so small that it’s not worth doing any more. That’s if you get any return at all. The few labels left will make impossible demands of you. Recently I had a recording of mine turned down by a European jazz label, despite the fact that it featured John Abercrombie, and the owner really liked the music. The reason he chose to go with a different artist was because that artist had given him the publishing rights to the music on his CD. That’s how desperate people are to get their music on CD – they’ll give away the publishing rights to the label.
Stealing From Our Heroes
There has always been precious little profit in making jazz CDs but whatever was there before has now disappeared thanks in no small part to file sharing. Young jazz fans, (and most young people in general), don’t seem to believe in paying for music any more. They’ve got used to acquiring music for nothing and see no reason why they should pay for a commodity they see as being their entitlement. I find this illegal sharing particularly baffling in the case of young aspirant jazz musicians. These are people who allegedly revere their heroes, yet see no contradiction in stealing from them.... If there are any Kurt Rosenwinkel or Brad Melhdau devotees reading this, I ask you – have you ever copied a track from a commercially available CD of Brad’s or Kurt’s for free? If the answer is yes, then how do you justify stealing from someone whom you regard as a musical hero and an inspiration? For every CD or track legally sold, these guys (and any artist) will get some kind of return – even if it’s only in the form of the company agreeing to release another recording. Conversely, for every track illegally copied or downloaded, these same people will not only get nothing but will find it more difficult to get recordings made in the future.
If you understand that even your small contribution could impact negatively or positively on your musical heroes, surely you’d want to be on the positive side? And let’s face it, it’s not as if musicians aren’t already giving away huge amounts of music for free anyway. Everybody has free downloads on their websites – so would it kill the rest of you to pay for the small amount of stuff that these artists are trying to sell in order to make a living? Is that too much too ask?
A student of mine recently sent me an email and asked me if I could send him a copy of my rhythm book as a PDF and mp3........ I didn’t even ask if he was looking for it for free (probably because I didn’t want to hear the answer....), but I can imagine what would happen once I started emailing the book and accompanying recording in those formats. That would be the end of whatever small sales I have.
And these are musicians who hope to be in the professional world in a short time. If even they don’t see the damage that illegal copying and downloading is doing, then what hope for the rest of the world? I guess they’ll understand soon enough...........
I’m a realist – I recognise that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back. I don’t think the illegal downloaders realise the damage they are doing to the art forms they profess to love (why will anyone bother to record in the future when it just ends up costing you money? That’s a discussion for another day), and I don’t think it’s possible to change how they think. But although I know there’s not much to be done in terms of changing things, I’m damned if I’m going to go along with the apologists for thievery, and the mealy-mouthed crap spouted by supporters of ‘filesharing sites’. These people are running nothing less than online warehouses full of stolen goods – they are thieves and fences. So fuck Megadownload/upload, Pirate Bay and all of the other robbers posing as free spirits serving the needs of music and film lovers. We musicians may be screwed thanks to the likes of these guys, but it would be of no small satisfaction to me to see them in jail for what they’ve done.