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Jul 03

Digital Music Piracy

SMH Article: “The record industry says it is disturbed by a study showing more than half of young Australians are unaware that “burning” music CDs and swapping songs online is illegal.”

For heaven’s sake, if that is surprising to ARIA, the execs there are severely out of touch with society. Even for the older generation, having kids should be notice enough that music piracy is rampant. The same problems have plagued the computer software industry ever since its inception and we don’t hear them complaining of their imminent collapse at the hands of the pirating hordes. It is incredible that ARIA is suddenly so worried.

Law is only effective if it is (1) known and (2) enforced. Music piracy, bar one current case, has never given rise to criminal prosecutions in Australia. As a result, piracy is widespread as there are no repercussions. Even if we also assume that people are genuinely unaware that it is illegal (come on, everyone knows copying music is wrong, but it seems less wrong than theft of physical goods), enforcement is a good way of “publicising” the law, as ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it. The fact is, digital piracy is easy, free, does not visibly deprive people of anything physical, and proceeds unhindered. Music CDs are the opposite. When CDs are stolen, it is more the theft of the actual physical good, rather than the intellectual property contained on the CD, that is thought of as the crime by the layperson – even though the intellectual property contained on the CD is responsible for the majority of the labelled price.

People have been saying this for years: The music industry needs to address the piracy issue differently. They try to publicise that piracy is illegal, but people don’t listen because no one gets busted for piracy. They then try to publicise piracy’s illegality by enforcing the law. The problem with this is that the customer base for music piracy is made up of a gigantic number of small consumers (many under 18). Picking on individual users is likely to cause resentment among the music community, and perhaps may increase the levels of piracy as a knee-jerk reaction. You’re only going to be prosecuted if you get caught, and for 99% of us, getting caught by ARIA is unlikely.

Other models, such as Apple’s iTunes service, where music can be purchased digitally online for micropayments, while not removing the prevalence of piracy, will certainly mitigate it. Piracy cannot be eradicated, the recording industry should accept that. There are always people who will steal if they can get away with it (and I know of no one without at least one illegal MP3 on their computer). Instead, they should be turning their attention to alternative ways to bring people back to paying for music, and that means addressing why people currently find buying their music unattractive.

I have no problem with the idea of music piracy being illegal. Intellectual property should be protected. I only take issue with how the problem is being addressed, though I don’t deny that there is no easy or completely satisfactory solution to this.