In a recent article in Inside Higher Education, Rob Capriccioso reported that a popular music file-sharing network, i2hub has shut down as of November 14th. They reportedly did this in order to prevent possible action against them from the Recording Industry Association of America in the wake of US Supreme Court’s recent decision in MGM Studios v. Grokster. Napster, Grokster, and now i2hub have all been shut down, but many believe that the battle over music and video sharing is far from over and that, despite the Supreme Court’s decision in the Grokster case, people will continue to use the internet for file-sharing. Bruce Abramson, author of Digital Phoenix: Why the Information Economy Collapsed and How It Will Rise Again, sheds some light on the current debate about and morality issues behind file-sharing on the internet:
The recent demise of Grokster, the second of the great music "sharing" systems, has led many people in a strange direction. Rather than focusing on technology, or law, or even music, public discussion seems to hinge on the morality of file-sharing. Even the Supreme Court has ventured in this direction; its recent ruling precipitating Grokster's demise focused almost entirely on the impropriety of encouraging users to violate record-company copyrights.
The morality of the situation, though, is a murky area. Record company executives typically refer to the young music fans who frequent file-sharing systems as "pirates." But piracy exists only because governments choose to allocate the rights being pirated. Two hundred years ago, for example, those who attacked slave ships and freed their human cargo were unquestionably pirates, subject to significant legal penalties when caught. Yet few today would consider their behavior immoral.
The true morality in the situation hinges upon a subtle question. Should our government allow record companies and movie studios to control the distribution of digital products? I explore this question in depth in Digital Phoenix. I begin by recognizing that we, as a society, should want to compensate our creative classes for all that they give us. I also recognize, though, that no one ever wants to overpay for anything—even for items of unquestioned value and quality.
We are paying our creative classes an inordinate price in exchange for the music and the movies that they give us. The hidden costs of our copyright system include slower rollouts of new technologies, massive expensive litigation, and the loss of American jobs. Court rulings that apply an archaic copyright system to regulate the distribution of digital products risks compromising America's leadership in information technology—just as the world prepares to leap from the industrial age to the information age.
So the next time you hear a discussion about the morality of "pirating" music on line, dig a little deeper. There's a lot more to morality than there is to legality. Just because certain downloads may be illegal doesn't mean that they're wrong. Digital Phoenix provides a useful way to think about these thorny issues as they continue to get ever thornier.
Visit the Bruce Abramson's blog here.