Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is file-sharing and downloading wrong?

I have so many thoughts on the current age we live in where technology allows us so many shortcuts in commerce. Like Andrew Keen, I greatly worry about the effect that web 2.0 has on art, society, and values. This is one of a few different essays, I've written on the topic on helium, including an expose on someone who is downloading the entirety of films on youtube:

One of the more worrisome aspects of the internet and the file-sharing that originated with Napster two years ago is how people believe that right or wrong is not as much of an issue if everyone is partaking in it. Downloading copyrighted music and videos have not become any less wrong just because it is more widespread or the punishments for such activity aren't being enforced. That being said, there are various degrees of wrong with this issue depending on a few factors.

The most prevalent of these is whether you disseminate the material. The difference between whether you disseminate (i.e. share through posting on youtube or a bit torrent) the material and whether you simply choose to download the material is analogous to the difference between an arms dealer and someone who uses a weapon. Uploading a song or video to the internet that isn't yours is wrong in many ways because it takes away the value of another person's work. Downloading a song illegally encourages the uploader to continue his wrongdoing and deprives the creator of the work of profit or whatever else he intended to do with his work.

Specifically, downloading copyrighted music and videos and reproducing them is a violation of of the Fair Use Act which states that you're not allowed to reproduce copyrighted content unless it's from criticism, comment, scholarship, news reporting, or research and there are certain restrictions based on, among other things: The portion used in relation to the entire copyrighted work, the effect of the copyright on market value and the nature of the copyrighted work.

Looking at this law closely reveals that copyright violation is not entirely a black-and-white issue and there are degrees of wrongdoing. Are we sampling a piece of the song or are we just stealing the whole body of work? Are we using the download for some useful creative purpose such as providing commentary of our own or do we just want to hear the song? To me, these stipulations make a lot of sense and help clarify the line between wrong and right.

The intention of the copyright owner is of course something that we overlook the most. Was it a commercial song intended to make money in some form for the artist? In this day and age, a number of artists are increasingly giving out content for free as part of a larger marketing plan. If that's the intent of the artist, than downloading it is ok. At the same time, perhaps that particular artist decided that he wants to charge money for some of his work and that is also his perogative. Just because similar artists are able to give out songs for free does not mean that all artists can profit from that model and we feel that we have a right to download their content for free.

Too often, we are guilty of assuming a "Robin Hood" complex with music that must be paid for. We say to ourselves "Oh, that money is just going to go to the record companies" as if we are doing the people a favor. In truth, we do not know how taking these songs or videos affects the people who are producing it. In a worst case scenario we are putting the artists we want to enjoy out of business by not financially supporting them and we are also depriving ourselves from enjoying the fruits of their labor since they can no longer support ourselves as artists.

Bottom line: As consumers and citizens who live under a code of laws including the very basic one- "Thou Shalt Not Steal" - we need to take responsiblity for how we chose to consume art or art won't survive

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