This post is largely in response to Hanno's request that I address whether stealing music is wrong. Specifically, stealing music digitally (p2p or peer-2-peer networks such as Limewire or Kazaa). However, a simple yes or no will not suffice. Stealing a physical cd from the record store is different than ripping a song off of a p2p site. In the store you are stealing physical property, on the internet you are stealing intellectual property. One of the major differences is copyright law. When you download a song, you are violating copyright law.
My answer to this question is largely shaped by one man: Lawrence Lessig. As he states, The original term of copyright set by the First Congress in 1790 was 14 years, renewable once. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. Who is copyright protecting? Consumers? Artists? Distributors?
Instead of providng a full defense here, I wish to simply begin the conversation by quoting from chapter 11 of Lessig's book, Free Culture:
The more I work to understand the current struggle over copyright and culture, which I’ve sometimes called unfairly, and sometimes not unfairly enough, “the copyright wars,” the more I think we’re dealing with a chimera. For example, in the battle over the question “What is p2p file sharing?” both sides have it right, and both sides have it wrong. One side says, “File sharing is just like two kids taping each others’ records—the sort of thing we’ve been doing for the last thirty years without any question at all.” That’s true, at least in part. When I tell my best friend to try out a new CD that I’ve bought, but rather than just send the CD, I point him to my p2p server, that is, in all relevant respects, just like what every executive in every recording company no doubt did as a kid: sharing music.
But the description is also false in part. For when my p2p server is on a p2p network through which anyone can get access to my music, then sure, my friends can get access, but it stretches the meaning of “friends” beyond recognition to say “my ten thousand best friends” can get access. Whether or not sharing my music with my best friend is what “we have always been allowed to do,” we have not always been allowed to share music with “our ten thousand best friends.”
Likewise, when the other side says, “File sharing is just like walking into a Tower Records and taking a CD off the shelf and walking out with it,” that’s true, at least in part. If, after Lyle Lovett (finally) releases a new album, rather than buying it, I go to Kazaa and find a free copy to take, that is very much like stealing a copy from Tower.
But it is not quite stealing from Tower. After all, when I take a CD from Tower Records, Tower has one less CD to sell. And when I take a CD from Tower Records, I get a bit of plastic and a cover, and something to show on my shelves. (And, while we’re at it, we could also note that when I take a CD from Tower Records, the maximum fine that might be imposed on me, under California law, at least, is $1,000. According to the RIAA, by contrast, if I download a ten-song CD, I’m liable for $1,500,000 in damages.)
The point is not that it is as neither side describes. The point is that it is both—both as the RIAA describes it and as Kazaa describes it. It is a chimera. And rather than simply denying what the other side asserts, we need to begin to think about how we should respond to this chimera. What rules should govern it?
This is a great topic to discuss at the philosophy club. My answer can't really be said any better than by Larry himself.