Stealing Music: Is It Wrong Or Isn't It?

Music used to be so simple. You listened to it on the radio for free, but you didn’t get to say what would be played, and there were lots of commercials. If you went to a concert, you paid. And if you bought a record, tape or CD, you paid. People copied CDs to cassette tapes and passed them on to friends. That was just about as far as P2P music piracy got. Stealing music was when you shoplifted a CD or cassette from the record store, and it was pretty clearly understood that it was “wrong.”

Maybe that’s why so many people who are older than say 30 think that downloading music is ethically wrong. They remember that music is something that you pay for. They still download the music, of course. But they know they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

But if you’ve discovered and come to love music in the last decade, I don’t see how you can be expected to know when listening to recorded music is ok, and when it’s wrong.

Let’s put the law aside for a moment – this post is about doing the right thing. We’ve been hammered with messaging from the government and the music labels that downloading or listening to music on the Internet is stealing, unless you pay for it. We see the video clips before movies at the cinema saying its wrong. We read about lawsuits against twelve year olds for downloading music from BitTorrent. Our government is even willing to threaten other sovereign nations over music piracy.

But over the last few years the line has blurred to the point where there really isn’t any line any more. We can listen to free, on demand streaming music at MySpace Music and lots of other sites. It’s ok to do it at MySpace, but it’s wrong to do it at Project Playlist, just because the right contracts aren’t in place? Just a couple of years ago anyone listening to free streaming music anywhere on the Internet was violating copyright and subject to being labeled unethical. Today, its no problem. And you don’t even have to listen to audio ads.

But downloading music, that’s still wrong, right? Nope. If you live in China, you can download music legally from Google for free. No problem.

Above I said I wanted to put the law aside for a moment. Now I’ll come back to it. Because the law, and particularly the U.S. government’s willingness to perpetuate the absurdity of copyright law as it applies to recorded music, is all that the labels have left. No one in their right mind could formulate an argument that downloading music on the Internet is “wrong” at this point. All the labels have left is the law.

Eventually the reality of the Internet will force the laws to change, too. One way or another the music labels will eventually surrender, and recorded music will be free.

Until it is, I refuse to feel guilty for downloading and sharing music. Every time I listen to a song, or share it with a friend, I’m doing the labels a favor. One that eventually I should be paid for. Until that day comes, don’t even think about trying to tell me that I’m doing something ethically wrong when it’s considered quite legal, with the labels’ blessing, in China.