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April 20, 2004

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Toward an Ethics of File Sharing

I. Keep in mind that this is an "ethics," not a "legality." Not everything illegal is unethical, just as not everything unethical is illegal. So, while sharing copyrighted materials remains illegal (and verboten under University policy), as it is generally practiced using programs like Kazaa and such, it's worth considering ways in which it might not be an ethical violation. In other words: if you're going to be a criminal anyway, you might as well not be a dick about it.

I.a. I'm not really a good person about this either, so I'm not trying to lecture anyone. Having said that

II. Under most, or at least the most frequent circumstances, file sharing is actually pretty bad. Setting aside the question of whether it is OK for talented artists to expect careers solely based on their work (based on the vitriolic response to one anonymous mid-list author, who complained in Salon that she couldn't make a living on fiction alone, most people don't expect it), the cost of production and distribution is still something we're obligated to take into account and to feel responsible for. Remuneration to artists themselves is also worthy in and of itself.

II.a. In my hugely limited experience, it's really great to get money for your work. I bought textbooks, went to dinner, bought Valentine's Day presents, and funded a weekend or two with the sole royalty check I've ever received.

II.b. Don't let the iTunes store fool you. Word on the street has it that Apple is taking a bath on the store and its $.99 prices in order to sell iPods.

III. Call it fetishistic if you want, but the actual production, distribution, and sale of CDs is important to the reputation of the artist: Internet-only releases tend to die on the vine, and those that don't, gain true acceptance only after their hardware version becomes manifest (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) or by drawing on pre-existing reputations (The Grey Album).

III.a. There's something to be said for having professional musicians—watch I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the Wilco documentary, to see what kind of work goes into a technically challenging album.

IV. Purchasing music, then, is good for the world—it encourages, and feeds, gifted artists who, as pop musicians (classical gets shared too, but we'll get to that in a second), have essentially no other form of making a living that has anything to do with their work, unlike writers and visual artists.

V. Arguably, anything that one would want to do on a serious level should demand a serious investment, finances included. Yet written knowledge is readily acknowledged to be so important that anyone with a library card can read whatever they want for free, and the resources are limitless.

V.a. The total number of books in the total number of bibliographies I have submitted at the University of Chicago would cost enough to purchase an extremely nice car.

VI. Unfortunately, having a broad knowledge of music and supporting everyone who you want to listen to is obviously untenable for not only college students but pretty much anyone who makes a normal amount of money. To have the kind of knowledge expected of anyone who writes about music for publication—as an amateur, much less as a full-time critic—requires an ungodly investment. I don't have exact figures for this, but the average amount of money required to purchase the CDs required to understand the references in your typical Pitchfork review is probably in the range of $25-$55. Since popular music is arguably the most influential form of art in America today, a broad knowledge of its history is not a luxury if you're interested in culture at all.

VI.a. Ever wonder why popular music—which you can't really find at libraries or rent from Blockbuster—makes up the vast majority of illegally copied art?

VII. The resources for music are highly limited, and those for popular music are limited even further. The University of Chicago library system, for instance, has 15 books on the Rolling Stones—specifically on the Rolling Stones—but only one Rolling Stones CD. Classical music, meanwhile, is drastically over-represented: the number of works attributed to "Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus" is listed at 1,640.

VIII. In general, "fair use" for educational purposes constitutes making full works available for temporary use, and reproduction of small portions of individual works are permitted (generally 10%, though it depends on the medium—save for television, the rules are nightmarish and absurd).

Now, here's how all this might apply to the ethics of file sharing, would that we were so enlightened that we could go to the U of C library and listen to Dolittle. Not going to happen in our lifetimes. Therefore, let's consider the file-sharing universe as compensating for the dearth of popular music in our library systems. Maybe one day record companies will join together into something like the Art Museum Image Consortium, which provides Internet access to art works for academic purposes, but it seems unlikely. Inspired bands like Wilco and the Preston School of Industry have taken to streaming their music and/or providing singles for free download, but for the most part this isn't the case.

Until then, if you're not going to obey the letter of the law, it's worth considering the spirit. Thus, a temporarily-held copy of, say, Limp Bizkit's "Rollin'," which no decent citizen would need for any purpose other than research or education, is perfectly legitimate. As would be a download of the Shaggs' Philosophy of the World for the purposes of writing a paper or article, or a couple listens to Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger for general background. But when Sufjan Stevens's "Say Yes! To Michigan!" ends up in your music folder for six months and on a couple of your iPod playlists, it's probably time to purchase it.

Granted, most copyright law is based on the concept of the reproduction, and we can see why; when reproductions get out of hand, it undermines the market. At the same time, the ethics are grounded in use, along a thin line that divides work from pleasure—use taken from copyrighted works for academic and creative work divided from use towards pleasure or fulfillment. Using a bootlegged "Toxic" single for a dance party isn't really fair use; using it for a research paper on 21st century sexuality is OK. It's an oddly puritanical system, but one that works on a number of different levels. And if you'll excuse me, I'm off to download some Pixies bootlegs and mail-order a Sufjan Stevens CD.