Reefer Madness, 21st Century Style

Here’s a commentary from the NYTimes Magazine on filesharing that points out that norms are at least as powerful as laws — and that parental and metaphorical dictats to youth can only achieve certain things: Turn On. Tune In. Download. [pdf]

We have heard again and again that this new generation is coming to believe that music is something you don’t pay for but rather simply take. That idea is in the air again since the major recording labels recently started filing what they say will be thousands of lawsuits against people who have used file-sharing software like KaZaA to download songs they have not paid for.

And the implication of that argument is ominous and meant to alarm us: file sharing is like a gateway drug that will make users unlearn their willingness to pay for movies, video games, books. What the music industry is doing might be thought of as administering a dose of tough love, an intervention that will remind wayward youth not just that stealing is wrong but also that we have a system here wherein goods and services carry a cost. It’s called capitalism, kid, and chances are very high that your favorite recording artist — and every other cultural figure you admire — loves it. Better to learn this now and kick the download habit before it leads to harder stuff, like a general unwillingness to pay for material goods of any kind, or a failure to grasp the magic of a great brand. If these consumer delinquents don’t get scared straight back to the mall, the cost to us all will be much greater than lost revenue for the music business. The very morals of a generation are at stake.

For that to be the case, a couple of underlying assumptions must be true. One is that file sharing is at its heart a problem of reckless youth who simply do not understand that what they are doing is wrong and dangerous. Another is that the habits of college are the habits of a lifetime.

[…] The urge to cast downloading as a kind of black-and-white moral issue that simply needs to be made plain to the kids so that they will knock it off is understandable, but it’s also wishful thinking. An estimated 60 million people have downloaded songs illicitly, which makes the phenomenon bigger than a youth fad. It’s more like speeding or marijuana use — activities that many people in a wide range of ages know are ”wrong” in a technical sense but not in a behavioral sense. By now, even if the music industry is right on the legal argument, it can’t win the moral one.

Graham Spanier’s Uphill Battle

A profile from today’s NYTimes: Students Shall Not Download. Yeah, Sure [pdf]. The selection of Penn State as the location for the profiles is truly ironic. (Although the injection of plagiarism as a parallel conundrum seems like yet another effort to find something to smear the P2P culture with)

One student articulates a comment raised elsewhere — some of this downloading is just collecting; no one really listens to all that’s downloade. She then raises a question that raises all sorts of ethical questions, far beyond that of copying.

Ann Morrissey, 19, confessed that she had not even listened to all the songs she had downloaded. “I have 400 songs, I listen to 20,” she said. “I don’t know why,” she added, then laughed self consciously, and answered herself, “You can, and it’s cool to have them.”

She, like others, does not see the harm done, and remains suspicious of the recording industry.

“How are you going to make downloading illegal when you can still smoke legally and give yourself lung cancer?” Ms. Morrissey asked. “There are a lot worse issues you could focus on.”

And some of the traditional arguments remain:

A common analogy — downloading music is like stealing a CD — does not sway students. Many argue that they are spending more money on music.

“I never went out and bought CD’s; now I go to concerts, because I know what kind of music people play,” said Kristen Lipski, 20. “If you can get your music out to a big group of people to listen to, they’ll go to your CD, go to your concert, spend money on posters. It’s really expensive, especially for college students, to buy the whole CD.”

Mr. Langlitz was on his way to a concert downtown by Taking Back Sunday, a band he said he would never have heard without downloading. “A lot of the bands I know about aren’t that well-known,” he said. “Before I saw their CD’s, I had them in my computer.”

These are the same arguments adults make. But while adults who remember the days of LP’s seem willing to pay 99 cents a song, students see any transition from free as a denial of basic right.