Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Legal, Economic, and Moral Dilemma

I decided to write this article after conducting conversations with many of this blog’s readers. Not surprisingly, many people believe that there are no inherent problems to downloading copyrighted material for free (music piracy). This is a response (or, more accurately, a plea) to those who hold this viewpoint. This is not meant to be a judgmental piece: first, because I have “file swapped” before; and second, this article was written as much to outline my own beliefs on the subject as it was to put forth my views to others.

The prime reason that every person in the United States should refrain from downloading copyrighted music for free is that it is illegal. There is no difference between downloading music from a peer-to-peer network, or directly from a music database. In the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of MGM v. Grokster in 2005, the Court unanimously ruled that peer-to-peer networks which allow for copyrighted material to be transferred between two or more parties can be held liable for copyright infringement. Thus, in the eyes of the law, using a peer-to-peer network to download music for free is no different from downloading music from a database of pirated music.

Second, “file swapping” is indeed illegal in and of itself. In 1997, the No Electronic Theft Act (NETA) was passed which makes it a federal felony to file swap, even through peer-to-peer networks. Furthermore, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is an additional law through which music pirates can be held to account.

Third, though some individuals claim that the government’s and music industry’s non-enforcement of these legal provisions is tacit assent to download, this is logically incorrect. Most Americans (including myself) drive over the speed limit. In fact, in a majority of cases were a police officer is visible, the officer is actually driving faster than I am. Merely because law enforcement agents do not adequately enforce the speed limit does not give me (or anyone else) liberty to go whatever speed we want and disregard the law by traveling 100 mph. Our society simply does not work that way. In the same way, even if the government or the music industry is not adequately enforcing the law, this does not in any way give us an excuse to flout the law.

Fourth, whether you agree with intellectual property rights (IP) or not is irrelevant. If you are against upholding IP you can work to change the existing laws. However, just because we as American may not agree with a certain law does not give us an excuse to radically disregard it. If I do not agree with our country’s laws regarding murder, I am not free to kill someone.

Now that we have established the more than questionable legality of downloading copyrighted material from sources such as Kazaa, Grokster, or Limewire, let us look at several other points which are applicable to this discussion. In addition to the legal reasons against illegally downloading copyrighted material, there are also economic concerns. The following is an example from usinfo.state.gov:

“A good example is Hong Kong, where a thriving movie industry was so hurt by rampant piracy that, just a few years ago, observers were predicting it would disappear from the filmmaking map. Similar developments have taken place in the world of music. Ethiopian musicians went on a seven-month strike in 2003 to press for better anti-piracy measures from the government. These artists all understood the importance of protecting their works from pirates.”

Though some artists may have no problems with downloading music illegally, empirical evidence suggests that the majority of musicians and music companies are working hard to mount a defense against the problems of music piracy. Music piracy also works to stifle creativity. When there is no incentive for invention, our economy will suffer. Once again from usinfo.state.gov:

“Many new musical voices, new authors, and new stories on film around the world have never been made available, simply because the incentives were not there for these artists to take a risk. They have known that whatever they produce will be immediately pirated -- stolen -- and they will not be provided the means to develop their talent.”

Rampant piracy will have the effect of discouraging innovation and the development of new talent. In actuality, “file swapping” works counter-intuitively. The same people who download the music will be harmed by the decrease in music available for sale. After all, why would artists and studios continue to produce if there music is readily available to the public for free?

Most importantly, however, we must also see what the Bible has to say on this issue. I believe I can say most assuredly that we are not given any example in the Bible regarding “file swapping”. However, we are given many passages which shed light on this issue.

First, the Bible mandates that we submit to those in authority over us. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” (Romans 13: 1-2) God has called us to subject ourselves to the laws and rulers of our government. To disobey this decree is a direct violation of God’s command. The only time this earthly law should be disobeyed is when it contravenes God’s law. I am unconvinced that laws against “file swapping” violate God’s law.

Second, we are not to use our Christian liberty as an excuse for illegal (or even unethical) actions. “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with welldoing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As fee, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” (1 Peter 2: 13-14) Even though Christ has taken the penalty of our sin, He has called us to obey not only his law but the law of the land.

And third, we also need to exemplify Christ-like behavior. When non-Christians look at our lives they should see a stark contrast between the world and us. Obeying not only God’s law but also the laws of this country is a shining example to others of the difference that Christ makes in the lives of those who follow him.

“File swapping” is more than just downloading music to listen to: it is a legal, economic, and moral dilemma. I hope that I have helped to bring clarity to this debate and challenged many longstanding assumptions to music piracy. Please post comments to let me know what you think.

Levi W. Swank


The Dissenter said...

You're right in so far as you've covered the subject.
Now I'm wondering what you think of friends sharing individual songs only with friends. People who do this are not part of a "network" of illegal sharing, nor do they aquire or make available whole albums. Is there anything illegal about sharing a song you own with a friend?
[[ this is something I frequently do, and I've bought albums as a result ]]

Caleb said...

I liked the comment about speeding :)
And I totally agree with you that making available to others for free what you bought while keeping the article for yourself as well, is wrong. I see nothing wrong with what the dissenter does, if the owner of the song isn't able to listen to it at the same time (or voluntarily chooses not to). The problem comes in when 1 person buys the product, and more than 1 person uses it at the same time. At that point it becomes theft, which is wrong (Exodus 20) and disobedience of governmental authority that is within Christian bounds (Romans 13).
I'm sure you heard Luke Juday's persuasive on this, it was really good.
I don't do music sharing because I don't listen to music in the first place. The closest thing I do to this is play video games on our local area network using 1 CD. The games are designed so that you can do multiplayer using only 1 CD though, and I looked at that huge chunk of text that you have to read and sign before you can play the game, and I didn't see anything to prohibit doing what we do. Gameboy games work the same way, and have multiplayer using only 1 cartridge.

Very good post.

Elizabeth said...

I'd echo Hannah's question above...I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on individual filesharing. Although, honestly, if one subscribes to the idea that in order to have access to any particular music file, you ought to have payed for it, then even friend-to-friend [non-networking] filesharing is still morally wrong. I would not have any problem with accepting a file offered me by a friend, and keeping it on my hard drive for 24 hours before deleting it. This is a common practice among certain music websites. Before you download anything, you must agree that it can only be kept for a 24 hour period, after which you probably will have decided whether or not the file is an investment you'd like to make. Unfortunately, these sites have no mechanism through which to deal with the basic fallen state of man, and cannot guarantee that those who use the site will delete the files later.

As for the general principles you laid out, I would heartily agree. Though, for a time, the ease of filesharing overshadowed legal implications in my mind, there isn't an easy way to get around the moral principles at stake. Even if, technically, filesharing could be construed to be legal/acceptable or the excuse could be made that the government has no jurisdiction over the industry, the heart of the issue (the "elephant in the middle of the room", so to speak) simply can't be avoided for long.

Now, here's another question: Is there anything wrong with copying a CD from/for a family member, so that you both have a copy, and could potentially be using it at the same time?

LWS said...

"Is there anything illegal about sharing a song you own with a friend?"

My article attempted to lay out some general principles regarding file sharing. I tried not to get too specific, since the legality of certain particular procedures is quite obscure. Though the practice of sharing songs among friends is far less cut and dried, I would agree with Caleb's assessment.

"Now, here's another question: Is there anything wrong with copying a CD from/for a family member, so that you both have a copy, and could potentially be using it at the same time?"

This is a question I have had since writing my post. The logic oultined in my post would indicate that even family members should not share songs. However, I have an extremely difficult time seeing how the sharing of songs among family members is illegal or immoral. I attempted to stick with the much larger issue of file swapping through internet sites in my post, as some of these smaller issues may be more a matter of conscience. I do not have a really good answer to this final question. What do all of you think?

Caleb said...

In response to your "let the class decide" answer, I would say that doing so doesn't strike me as wrong. Technically, I think it should be, but something about it seems perfectly right. Maybe it is the fact that if it is just within the family, one could just listen to the CD playing in his sibling's CD player, or maybe it is because like with like NCFCA affiliate numbers, one per family is enough. For some reason though, it doesn't seem wrong.

If it is wrong though, the problem is easily fixed. Just make sure that no one else is playing the same CD at the same time as you. It is not any more illegal to potentially be using the CD at the same time as someone with a copy than it is to own a firearm that could potentially be used to murder someone.