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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Downloading integrity in a digital age

    In early March, news broke of a subpoena sent to the UA to release the names of four students caught illegally downloading music.

    The outcry from the campus community was immediate. From Daily Wildcat editorials to letters to the editor to UA student blogs and Facebook updates, students quickly bemoaned the Recording Industry Association of America for unjustly prosecuting college students.

    When it comes to file-sharing, however, college students quickly jump to self-defense rather than pausing to realize that modern ethics are often blurred by changing technology. Not only is sharing media through peer-to-peer networks illegal, but the flippancy with which we do it portends serious moral challenges in the future.

    Arguments supporting file sharing through peer-to-peer networks generally run three courses: “”It’s OK because I’m not hurting the artist at all””; “”It’s OK because music is art and art should be free””; or “”It’s OK because RIAA is an evil and stubborn cartel that needs to be undermined.”” But each of these attitudes is circumstantial preference rather than a valid claim to download music illegally.

    Many file-sharers embrace the “”open source age”” and see music file sharing as an essential step to supporting the free flow of information. Undoubtedly, the chart-crazed music industry seems anything but artistic and creative. With huge corporations promoting mega-pop stars, often playing rehashed singles abrogated from lesser-known artists, the focus is too often more on selling records than making music.

    But thanks to rapid technological advances in recording and marketing, the meter of the music is rapidly changing.

    Decisions by artists like Radiohead and The Format to release music independently speak of the declining importance of the record label. David Byrne, front man for the Talking Heads, writes avidly about the changing industry, and in one Wired magazine article, agrees that major labels will become less and less important for mid-level popularity musicians “”as the roles they used to play get chopped up and delivered by more thrifty services.”” The industry is changing, corporate overhead is being reduced and artists have more – and more professional – marketing and production tools at their fingertips then ever before.

    The reality that technology is changing the music industry, however, is no justification for artificially accelerating this change by illegally downloading music. This natural evolution of the music industry is what makes self-righteous file sharers so bewildering. The time is coming, and quickly, when the majority of popular artists will be independently financed. When this day comes, will we still feel justified in freely stealing their music?

    Some would say yes. Music is art, and many incorrectly think that art and capitalism don’t mix. But while balancing commercial concerns with artistic sensibilities is a constant struggle for artists, the decision of whether or not to pay artists for their music should not be left to the audience. That decision belongs to the creator. While the bytes and beats stored on our computers constitute ownership, we must accept that with possession can come artistic restrictions.

    This struggle forms the crux of the futuristic sci-fi novel “”Noir,”” by K.W. Jeter. In this back-alley future, copyright infringement is punished as the vilest of crimes. Rather than fines of hundreds or thousands of dollars, though, the punishment for a single infraction is death, often involving spinal cord extraction. While Jeter’s predictions are extreme, his intuition is correct: Copyright issues are already one of the most pivotal struggles in a digitized world. Unless students begin taking individual responsibility for their online actions, not only can we expect enforcement to become increasingly severe, as the RIAA subpoenas indicate, but we can expect the number of full-time musicians and artists in our society to decline.

    Due to the anonymity of the Internet, users are willing to do things they would often not do in public: Download music and movies illegally, gamble and trash talk in Web forums. Psychological research indicates there is an increasing disconnect between the concerns of face-to-face interaction and online behavior. The Internet has opened up a whole new landscape fraught with moral decisions our parents never had to make.

    These messy dilemmas are not just limited to the Internet. Technology in general almost always raises new moral questions for society. When transportation technology was improved in the 16th century, oceanic voyages raised new questions of property ownership. How were explorers to treat natives? Who owned new territories? The printing press led to massive intellectual property struggles over sheet music, books and pamphlets. Surgical advances have led to pressing moral debates over stem cell harvesting, egg donations and ownership over fetuses. UA campus technology is no exception: Will I use my CatCard to get a free soda? Will I cheat the system to get free printing? As the advance of technology permits greater and greater anonymity, we will face more and more challenges to our integrity; this change requires higher standards, not more leniency.

    Our response to changing technology and changing industries should not be to sidestep the law and demand free downloads, but to fortify to the face-to-face ethics that cement our society. Put your money where your mouth is and buy the music that you want.

    Matt Rolland is a junior majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at

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