Electronic Erosions


I won’t bury the lede, thanks to the probably cryptic : this tiny article is about the morality of downloading content, specifically music, illegally.

Per Trinity rules, I of course do not pirate music. But if one were to download music without paying the artist (either “directly,” which still ends up benefiting record companies a lot, or indirectly through ad revenue), I would support them not from an ethical standpoint but from a practical one.

The relevant truth about digitized media versus analog media is that creators take a direct economic loss when someone steals a concert T-shirt or a CD, but only an indirect economic loss when someone pirates one of their songs. This can be well-expressed via a cookie analogy.

Say you have a few batches of cookies, and you sell them in your front yard, because people in analogies are usually screw-ups. But  someone runs by and steals a cookie! You now have one less cookie.

But say your friend wants your recipe because she’s an equally screwy screw-up. Do you give her the original copy? Or do you let her copy it down on her own paper? You’ve lost nothing except the potential loss of income if your friend goes into the cookie-baking business.

The latter example is what digital downloads look like these days, and music is hit especially hard because of (or is it the other way around?) the popularity of sampling artists’ work into “original” songs that make heavy use of the sampled material, altered or unaltered.

The idea of a sole creator of a work is still true, of course. Kanye is certainly Kanye, if nothing else. But for the superstar musicians, their songs are not only pieces of music but have become templates for others to use (whether the artist likes it or not).

That’s the problem with music and other media existing in a common, digital code: anyone can torrent to their personal computer without the original copy “running out” of anything. It’s a clone. And until the music industry becomes a little more open-minded and a lot more creative, people without a lot of money will continue to take the free option without a second thought.