Friday, July 10, 2009

Is File-Sharing Immoral?

I saw a really interesting and amazingly civil discussion online about the question: "Is illegally sharing music immoral?"

The link is here:

After reading the thread I got excited about posting a comment, but my comment got super-long, so I've decided to put it here on my blogs. Several responses to the thread compared putting songs on file-sharing networks to borrowing a book from a friend or a library, and I kept thinking that this was a misleading comparison. So, that's where I launched my reply:

I don't see how anyone can honestly equate one person lending a single copy of a book to his or her friend with another person helping thousands upon thousands of strangers to make free copies of a music CD. Do you really see no difference? The difference is obvious: the book in the first example is never magically turned into thousands of copies of the same book. You can only read a book so fast, and so lending it to friends is a naturally slow and limited process. Whereas once a digital copy of a song is available, the number of copies expands exponentially. We all know that the advent of near-perfect copying has really changed the nature of sharing a work of art. I guess the problem is that it's all happened so fast that there aren't yet any generally agreed-upon standards of behavior.

The labels have brought a lot of this trouble upon themselves and us musicians by digging in their heels throughout the 90s when a creative approach to pricing and selling digital copies might have still been possible. By about 2001, when Napster was shut down, the horse was already out of the barn, and file-sharing was turned into a kind of "stick it to the man" act of bravery.

But the artists did benefit from their record sales in the past, because they got advances from record labels willing to risk the investment on possible profits later. Sure, very few artists saw royalties after these advances, but the advances were one significant way that musicicans were paid for their work. I know, because I got cash advances on even the Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic songs and albums that didn't sell. Nowadays those advances are rare and very small, and all but the very top bands and singers are seeing their incomes fall dramatically every year.

That's okay, nobody promised us we'd get rich or even make a living, but it seems self-serving for file-sharers to argue that copying and enjoying our work without paying somehow benefits us musicians.

I can see pretty clearly how it benefits the person who gets the free album, though...

Because music is fun! It brings joy and peace and inspiration to tired, discouraged and sad people! It makes lonely people feel less alone in their troubles, it gives angry people an outlet for their rage, it makes it easy to dance at parties and fall in love! These things are worth paying a little for!

I fly a lot in my work as a songwriter, and I bring my acoustic guitar on the planes with me. If I check it in as baggage, it will eventually come off the plane broken. I have learned this over and over again to my dismay. So I get on the airplane early, bring the guitar into the cabin with me and put it in an overhead bin.

On crowded flights, other passengers will see my guitar occupying two spaces in the overhead bin and complain to the flight crew. "Hey! There's a guitar here! That should go down in the hold! I can't fit my rollaboard into the overhead bin!" And sometimes the crew will then make me check the guitar into the baggage hold. And then, every 20 or so times the guitar comes back out of the plane broken.

I never make a scene at moments like this, but what I would like to say is: "This guitar has given lots and lots of people joy, and if it is broken, I'll have to spend a bunch of money to buy another one so that it can give lots of people joy! Your rollaboard is just a bag full of toiletries and clean underwear; it is only going to give you and maybe one other person joy! That's why my guitar deserves the extra spaces in the overhead bin and your rollaboard will just have to go down in the hold!" I wish I had the chutzpah to say this, but I don't. Especially because I think no one will understand what I'm saying.

Now, these outraged business travelers, who are just trying to save themselves 20 minutes of waiting for their own checked bag by stashing everything into a rollaboard, aren't intentionally trying to break my guitar. If the crew told them they could have the overhead space but the crew would have to break my guitar in two right then and there, I'm sure at least most of these passengers (not all) would say, "Oh, never mind, I'll check my rollaboard. You can leave the guitar in the overhead bin." In fact, I'd say that if they knowingly chose to have my guitar broken, it would be an immoral act; a small one, but definitely immoral.

And that's what people do in a tiny way by making our songs available to any old stranger on a file-sharing site. These file-sharings are very small acts, but they hurt the musicians a little each time. And I think people actually understand this, despite all the disingenuous arguments that file-sharing is good for musicians. I mean, give me a break, the site is called "Pirate Bay"! Everyone knows that pirates were sailors who robbed other ships!

I don't feel well-enough informed of the details of the case of the Minnesota Mom who has been fined more than a million dollars... that sounds truly terrifying, and I wonder just how many copies she would have had to give away to really add up to that amount of money. And it does seem typical of the tone-deaf way the music industry has dealt with this issue all along.

On the other hand, I wish the Minnesota Mom hadn't used as a late-breaking defense that "someone else" might have been signing onto her computer unbeknownst to her and sharing the songs. Hmmm. I think I liked the Robin Hood "stick it to the man" defense better.

As for creative commons licenses, this movement seems like a quibble, since holders of creative commons licenses are still trying to maintain control of how their work is used and copied. Why criticize copyright holders and yet still put restrictions on the use of your work? Why not put it out with no restrictions? If your song is good enough, a major corporation will steal it from you, release it, and make loads of money. Oh, but of course the sales would promote your tour. I hope touring is a big part of your new business model!


TVDave said...

Wow, thanks for the thoughtful post -- it was an eye opener. I've always thought of sharing as OK, because of the reprehensible practices of the RIAA and the fact that we musicians "borrow" tunes and songs from all those who came before us, and sharing is part of the deal. Now I'm not so sure...because other than songs musicians have little else they can traffic in.

Musicians are like newspapers right now -- they have few choices besides giving it away, except to those who choose to buy. So until that magic focus-group in the sky comes up with a better economic's up to the rest of us to recognize how important it is, and throw musicians a bone!

Troy said...

Hi Dan,

I'm a long-time writer in Saint Paul and have been following your blog posting for a while here in the Twin Cities.

(Long-time listener, first-time caller).

I've long been fascinated by the chords you've struck here today because I've always viewed a lot of writing as art -- in the sense that, like painting, or music, or photography -- it's a creative, inspirational effort that spiritually touches other people. (If that's how one would choose to define art, I guess).

And to a similar degree that music files are shared, several of my essays over the years have been reproduced and shared without my being compensated, beyond my initial payment. (Last century, it was shared by copy machine. These days, it's been e-mailed and posted on too many websites to count -- my own included, LOL).

To be fair, as with music copyrights, there are some protections in place for a writer. Colleges, for example, are required to pay royalties to essay writers if the work is reproduced for class readings, etc. (Nothing like the occasional, random check for $13).

But by and large, especially in these days of the Internet, it's a free-for-all. See HuffPost. See Drudge.

Short of establishing a pay wall, if a writer has something published on the web, it's considered free and fair game. Especially, (ahem), blogs.

Pay? You're lucky if you get an attribution.

That's why so many newspapers and magazines are up in arms about aggregators like Google, that repackage web content: Like a record company, publishers out there are paying writers up front, only to see someone else give the product away for free.

It's like a K-Tel mix tape with no royalties.

All that said, I'm sure that we writers aren't that different from most musicians, in that deep down we all hope that we can somehow parlay our creativity into making a living.

But, like many songwriters, we realize that at the end of the day not all of us are going to be financially compensated the way we'd like.

(That said, I sure wish we could pull off a tour and sell T-shirts).

But in that sense, you make an interesting reference to Lewis Hyde, and the notion of an artist's larger role in society -- one that ultimately questions any of our true goals.

Are we really doing this to just make money? Or are we doing this because it's our calling? Are we trying to make a profit, or trying to make the world a better place through our art?

Depends on your definition of "success."

In the music business, until the Internet, promoters and producers had been working under a business model that made them millions. No more.

So, like in the world of publishing, the rush to create a sustainable business model in the digital age has been like a homesteader land grab. (The image that comes to mind is the scene from the movie "Far and Away.")

iTunes, Kindle, etc.

Ultimately, though, it always comes back to the artist. If we have something substantial to contribute, something that resonates, people are going to find it.

Just as publishers -- be they music, book, or otherwise -- are the ones who will most likely capitalize on it.

Whether that's enough to make the artist happy, I guess, depends on where the artist is at in their career.

- Troy
Saint Paul

DannyGumballs said...

My question to you is, are you an artist or a business man? My guess is that you consider yourself both. You are one of the few lucky ones that have been able to achieve success at both.

How many musicians do you know (musician= someone who creates music)?
Even as professional musician, with an incredibly large network of pros, How many musicians(see definition above)did you know pre file sharing that made a net profit even equivalent to that of a part time McDonald's worker?

The fact is, free music allows more exposure to more artists to more people. In the end bringing more joy to all those people.

True, you are in the small percentage of businessmen who are going to miss out on sales dollars, but imagine the exposure and opportunities now available to those underpaid, unheard of musicians.

If you want to continue to be successful at both, the time is ripe to channel your creativity into finding new revenue streams for your musical outlet. You mentioned touring and playing live music. This worked great for musicians for the last few thousand years.

I'm not trying to convince anyone that file sharing isn't immoral. But the ease of doing so, vs. the harm to society (which has yet to be even remotely displayed. In fact it seems to me that there is more music available than ever before) will allow it to flourish as long as internet speeds and hard drive space are readily available.

The point is the the words music and industry unlikely to be heard together in the near future.

Troy said...

United breaks guitars

Dan Wilson said...

Troy, Danny Gumballs, TV Dave, thanks for the comments. DG, to answer your question, I think of myself as an artist, not as a businessman. The businessan model is to move from one enterprise to another with no regard to "what" you're selling - real estate is no better than crude oil is no better than frozen dinners - the point is the profit, not what you're bringing to the people. An artist does what they love regardless of the rewards. Who knows, I might have done a lot better financially if I'd gone into business rather than music, but the fact is I love music, making it, listening to it, being with others who make it. And honestly speaking, to have a "calling" like this is way more of a blessing than to have a good head for business.

So my first "non-businessman" decision was to be a musician, and everything else followed from there.

Now of course I am always trying to invent new ways of collaborating with people and sharing my gifts and making a living. It's always been a hustle and it always will be. But it's not a very smart business to get into, as a business, and it may never be!

I'm not complaining about my good fortune, I hope that's clear. I'm just joining the discussion, which everyone seems free to do.

I wonder if those who are willing to say to musicians, "You'd better find a new business model," are equally willing to say to part-timed factory workers, "You'd better learn a new trade." It might be better to say to them, "Sorry about your job," or "Sorry nobody buys your recordings anymore," because they already know damn well they need to learn a new trade.

Mike said...

Excellent post. My wife and I are authors, and we've been fighting the same battle lately. Your post echoed many of my feelings, and expressed them very eloquently. We've found a number of people selling our books on-line, and when we ask them to stop (even if we do it politely), they often become angry. How dare we prevent them from making an honest living!

The file sharers are, at least, not trying to make money from someone else's work, but they are rapidly making it impossible to make a living from creating anything that can be digitized.

I'm getting tired of being told that "real artists" create for the joy of it, and would be flattered by the wide distribution of their works. We are flattered, and delighted that so many people enjoy our work. However, I also like to eat, and sleep in a warm house. Why shouldn't we be compensated for our work like any other professional?

The file-sharers keep saying that 'the business model is broken'. They say that a successful business model must provide free content, and monetize something else. I always want to scream, "Like WHAT? Speaking engagements? We're not very entertaining in person, and the the result of all our labor is a small text file!" We've worked countless hours to master our craft, and work many more to make a polished, professional product. In the end, if the product is given away for free, we're going to end up working at Walmart.

lojasmo said...


I love reading your thoughts almost as much as I love listening to your music. Thanks for sharing. I'll give up my overhead slot any time for your guitar, should I be lucky enough to share a plane with you.


Caleb said...

"When someone downloads a piece of music, it's just data until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their mind, their subjective experience. How they perceive your work changes your work. Treating your audience like thieves is absurd. Anyone who chooses to listen to our music becomes a collaborator. People who look at music as commerce don't understand that. They are talking about pieces of plastic they want to sell, packages of intellectual property. I'm not interested in selling pieces of plastic. I'm grateful that I've sold enough to have a house, take care of my kids and live decently. But that's a gift, not an entitlement. I don't want potential fans to be blocked because the choice to check out our music becomes a financial decision for them." – Jeff Tweedy

Anonymous said...

The booty on the Pirate Bay isn't really treasure.

Perhaps I'm too old school, but when I've been given MP3s by friends who file share, I don't experience the music the same way as when I purchase a CD.

For me, there's more to experiencing an album than loading a file into my MP3 player and plugging into the data.

First, there's the investment. If I don't actually buy the music, I have made no investment of cash into it. Therefore, I may or may not invest any time listening. It may be lost in the shuffle of my many digital files. There is no loss to me if I forget to play it. The songs I've invested money in I tend to take more time getting to know. Listening more than once and making them mine.

Presentation matters to me as well. A lot of thought goes into what album artwork to use, and sometimes the CD booklet's artwork adds additional flavor to the work as a whole. The liner notes may include lyrics or a note from the artist (in Moby's case, it sometimes includes a rant). I don't get the same effect from digital files as a physical CD because even if a PDF of the artwork is included, it's not the same.

Then there's sound quality. Whether the MP3 came from file sharing or from a legal Amazon or iTunes purchase, it generally does not contain the highs and lows that the track has on the CD. As an audiophile this matters some to me. As a DJ it matters a lot to me. I hate playing a track on the radio and watching the needle barely waggle on the dial.

It bothers me that music is being treated by so many as merely data. I can understand wanting to stick it to the RIAA, but when I as a listener have participated in the ill-gotten goods, I end up feeling more cheated than if I had made an honest purchase.

So count me in. I'll buy your next album in the hopes that you can afford to replace your broken guitar.

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Marijn said...

Perhaps a little late, but there are a few things I've read in the discussion that just urge me to reply(haven't had the opportunity to read the entire discussion yet, so forgive me if I bring up arguments already stated).

First of all: we have to get an overview of all different perspectives here. When we solely believe in our own truth, the entire discussion would be pointless. There is no absolute truth to be found here, for it is a discussion, a place where all different kinds of perspectives blend into some sort of conversation and eventually a consensus.

For example: The two major perspectives in this discussion have been so far the artist's and the listener/consumer's. This is a very black/white kind of approach. Myself, I belong to both categories. I'm a young songwriter for a relatively unknown band (yet..I hope), which is a new perspective in a way. The only way to make a living for me would be the sale and use of the songs I write. If my songs don't sell (because people share them instead of buying them), I don't get paid. This, however, is just the existing construction the industry is using at this point.

Think about it. The only ones who really earn money in this entire construction, are the record companies. Sure, they pay the makers of a song a bit, but it's important to keep in mind that the companies have the power in the end. Why not think of a new construction in which the company pays the artist, no matter how many songs they sell?

I think sharing is a great way, perhaps the only way of promoting yourself as an artist nowadays. I live in the Netherlands, and the only way to earn the position to make your living making music, was to be massively plugged by a major. Lately, there have been more and more bands and artists who promote themselves and create a "buzz" without the inevitable major-money. These artists couldn't have become artists if it wasn't for sharing and the use of internet as promotor.

Which, indirectly, brings us back to me: the songwriter who doesn't earn a penny when people don't buy the songs I write. I don't earn a penny either when I don't get to write songs for a band attached to a major.

In short: I think companies have to adjust their existence. In the early 20th century, the entire sheet music-industry collapsed when the grammophone record entered the market. Each time a new sound carrier is brought up, there is a crisis. And each time the music industry comes up with a solution in the end.

Ask yourself what the product really is: the sound carrier, the physical embodiment of months of work and effort of a number of people? Or is the product abstract, a unique experience which has little to do with the cd it's copied to? Record companies will have to start selling the abstract product. There are already companies that combine selling cd's with "selling" and organizing concerts..

Don't think too much about the artist or the consumer. Think about solutions, about the future, and most of all...think about the passion for music we all DO share!

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