Topic: Society

Canada’s File-Sharing Surrender

A Canadian court has shaken up the world recording industry by ruling that sharing copyrighted works on peer-to-peer computer networks is legal in the Great White North.

Teenagers and others who have employed every rationalization in the book (notably the gold standard of the rationalization realm, “Everybody does it”) to justify getting their favorite music for free are now even more insufferably self-righteous about the sanctity of what is, in truth, an act of theft. The recording companies are preparing for appeals and similar court battles in the US. The rest of us have a front row seat at a periodic social spectacle: the messy collision of law, technology, reality, the march of progress, money and ethics. When one of these occurs, something has to give.

Hint: it isn’t reality.

The ethics of file sharing are clear as a mountain stream where rockers haven’t been throwing their beer cans into it. It’s wrong. The recording companies contract with the artists, own the songs and distribute the recordings. It is their property, and the property of the artists. They have an absolute right to be paid whatever they ask for to permit others to benefit from their property. This is true whether they are greedy or obnoxious, or whether they over-charge, or exploit their artists, or whether you really, really like the songs and would rather spend the money the companies want to charge on something else, like Chinese carry-out. None of this has anything to do with the inherent wrongness of taking someone else’s property, just because, basically, you can and you want to. Nor does it matter that it is easy, that you won’t be caught, that it’s really cheap, and that, yes, everybody does it. It is wrong. This is not stealing food for a starving family, in which some debatable ethical conflicts are raised by the act. This is not stealing medicine for a dying child. This is stealing music that other people have created, labored on, and paid for, without compensating them justly or asking their permission.

Now that we’ve settled that, we’ve really settled nothing. At a certain point, ethical standards bend to societal realities. This is the point where “Everybody does it” actually has significance. You argue, and you teach, and you try to hold the line, but at some point it is clear that society has made a decision: we want to do this, and we don’t want to feel bad about it. Then the minority of people who believe that the action is wrong has a choice: accept the new norm, or reject the behavior as a matter of personal ethics. There are people who fervently believe smoking is wrong, or drinking is wrong, or having sex out of wedlock is wrong, or that eating animals is wrong. And they may be right, but the vast majority says otherwise. It may have reached its conclusions on the basis of all the ethically irrelevant arguments cited above, but it doesn’t matter: the decision is made. This is why it is so important not to shrug off ongoing cultural battles about recreational drugs, steroids, gambling, and other issues you or I might care about. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers will decide the issue, and the ethical debate becomes academic.

That appears to be where the file-sharing debate is going. The Canadian court opinion is one more nail in the coffin, though as nails go, it’s a fairly silly one. The opinion couldn’t see the legal or practical distinction between a copy machine in a library (legal, as it permits limited copying of text for specific personal use) and file-sharing systems designed to facilitate free music acquisition by thousands of people. Not understand the internet? Moi? Uh, Mr. Judge, you do understand that a crummy stapled Xeroxed copy of a chapter of book isn’t the wholesale appropriation of an entire product like a complete download of an album, right?

I guess not. But again, it doesn’t matter. Ethics and the law are in the process of being buried by reality: people want to do this, and it is going to be impossible to stop it. The Canadian court decision is an especially badly reasoned surrender, but surrender is inevitable. Record companies, legislators, courts and ethicists had better adjust: file sharing is here to stay. If you understand that it is wrong, don’t do it until the artists and recording companies capitulate, and “agree” that it’s fine with them, just like the movie industry finally decided that it was fine for people to video-tape films off the TV.

It will still be wrong. The insidious aspect of “Everybody does it” isn’t that it turns wrong into right, but that it makes doing wrong a habit.

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