Music Sharing: A Question of Ethics

Hum 102-005

March 9th, 2004

It has been around for centuries, possibly one of the most important staple in all cultures. The uses vary between all societies. The importance of this artwork may vary anywhere from its significance, for religious purposes, or for plain out personal enjoyment. In modern times its main purpose is to convey messages of politics, emotions, and ideas (although a lot of mainstream has varied from this significance). The art form I speak of is of course music. However, in the world of music there has been a topic that has been the source of much controversy and debate. File sharing, which recently emerged in the late nineties, has become globally rampant. Anyone with a PC and an internet connection can not only download music files, but movies and software as well. This is obviously a huge dilemma for the music industry and artists that rely on records sales as income. With album sales dropping significantly in current times it is a problem that must be addressed. File sharing is ethically wrong in the fact that it steals one’s property without any permission.

In 1999, an 18-year-old college dropout named Shawn Fanning changed the music industry forever with his file-sharing program called Napster. His idea was simple: a program that allowed computer users to share and swap files, specifically music, through a centralized file server. His response to the complaints of the difficulty to finding and downloading music over the internet was to stay awake for sixty consecutive hours writing the source code for a program that combined a music-search function with a file-sharing system and to include communication and instant messaging. Following the creation of Napster many more file-sharing programs were created such as Kazaa, IMesh, DC++, and Poisoned.

With new programs being introduced on an almost daily basis it seems impossible for anything to be done in order to reduce or eradicate file-sharing. The Recording Industry Association of America has filed suit against Napster charging them with tributary copyright infringement, which means Napster is being accused not of violating copyright itself, but of contributing to and aiding other people\'s infringement. However, Napster argues that because the actual files are never in Napster\'s possession, but transferred from user to user, that Napster is not acting illegally. The issue in P2P applications (Peer to Peer) is that if Napster is guilty of copyright infringement, then the consumers of Napster are guilty too. Likewise, if the consumer is not guilty, then how can Napster be the only party held responsible.

This is the main are in which the question arises as to whether or not file-sharing is ethical. In February 2001, a judge ruled that Napster had to stop the distribution of copyright material through its network. Record companies provided filenames and song titles that should be removed and Napster blocked over 250,000 songs using over 1.6 million filenames. But that wasn\'t good enough. In July 2001, a judge told Napster it must block all files infringing copyright, effectively forcing it to shut down. Napster folded in September 2002 when its sale to Bertelsmann was blocked by a Delaware court. Bertelsmann had invested heavily in the company in the hope it would provide a secure commercial file sharing application. Apparently the question has been answered as to whether the host shareware program, in this case Napster, can be found guilty.

Since very few people have been physically prosecuted in a court of law for file-sharing many copyright holders and large companies are beginning to use tactics in order to try and intimidate users of these programs. Copyright holders attack the ethical integrity of file sharing users by equating the act of downloading copyrighted files with stealing physical CDs. They also have the notion that most people find the act of going into a store and stealing a physical CD to be morally wrong to the degree that they would not do it, and try to use this to their advantage by claiming that downloading music is no different.

By doing this it prevents many people from pursuing the act of P2P file-sharing. Based on the fact that the courts have deemed file-sharing illegal, its continued use is unarguably unethical. Although it is known as an illegal and unethical activity,