To Share or Not to Share

To Share or Not to Share

File sharing has changed the way students get music and raised a question: whose music is it, anyways?

By Gerry Boyle '78

The file-sharing cat is out of the bag and subpoenas, lawsuits and bandwidth restrictions won't stuff the cat back in. You might as well have told Alexander Graham Bell to stop talking on the telephone.

Marley Orr has heard all of the arguments against downloading music and has gotten the occasional lecture from her older brother, a professional jazz musician. He argues that recorded music is the artist's property and taking it is flat-out wrong. But Orr contends that file sharing is part of the culture, the best way to keep up with what is new and cool in music, and it provides a way to sample music without buying entire CDs for single songs. "People are one-hit wonders," Orr said. "I can get the one Avril Lavigne song I do like and forget about her."

imageBesides, she said, "most of the artists I download are dead. Stevie Ray Vaughn is not coming back."

In fact, many college-age music downloaders do feel an obligation to support musicians by buying their CDs. But the bigger the artist, the smaller the obligation. "With most independent music, indie rock and a lot of punk rock, too, it's sort of a moral commitment to support the artist through CD sales," Dupuy said. "Much more than your Top Forty artist. I don't think downloading has hurt them. For independent artists, it's a huge boost."

In other words, Outkast is seen as fair game for downloading. But Dupuy's favorite band, The Flower Kings? Go buy the CD.

Andrew Will said he simply can't afford to buy every CD that he might like, though he does believe in supporting up-and-coming artists who need a fan base. He also is loyal to certain artists,Dave Matthews, Ben Folds,and owns all of their CDs. But that leaves a wide swath of music to peruse and share. "I think music is a fantastic thing and it should be out there," Will said. "That's kind of how I justify it to myself."

But are students sidestepping the ethical questions associated with illegal file sharing? Isn't there something wrong with taking an artist's work without paying for it?

Maybe, but there are reasons why file sharing so easily falls into a gray area, said Cheshire Calhoun, Dana Professor of Philosophy at Colby. For one, people who share music files know they're not alone and therefore can fall under the influence of what Calhoun and other philosophers call "moral drift." So many people are engaged in the same activity that it no longer seems unethical. "This is so conventionalized that it is very difficult to have a sense that what you're doing is wrong," Calhoun said.

In addition, harm done by file sharing is produced by many, many people acting collectively so one person's actions seem minuscule and relatively harmless, she said. The fact that file sharing is something done by so many people also makes it less likely that individuals will refrain of their own volition. "Why should I restrain myself when there's no guarantee that other people are going to restrain themselves?" Calhoun said. Add to that the natural tendency for people to discount harm done to someone or something that is out of sight and you've got a problem.

But Calhoun points out that consumers who download music for free may be holding a double standard in that their access to free music is dependent on many other people actually buying music. A file sharer doesn't want the industry to suffer and record fewer artists. "They need for there to continue to be lots of people who are still buying CDs," Calhoun said. "But they want to make an exception for themselves. . . . They become free riders on other people's purchases."