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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

Sharing is Good

Record Town was bustling with customers the last couple days before Christmas. Long lines, stressed-out employees and a maelstrom of people flipping through shelves of compact discs were the perfect cover for Dan to slip a Linkin Park CD into his puffy winter jacket. The high-schooler's heart raced. His eyes dashed. His sweaty fingers streaked across the plastic wrap as he shoved the CD into his pocket.

Dan turned sharply, trotting toward the door. As he crossed the threshold alarms screamed. His brisk strut became a dash. Then his feet shot out from beneath him. His arm felt as though it was anchored to the wall, tied by five iron security guard fingers.

The thief deserved to be caught. Stealing is wrong. It undermines the American economy. It should be stopped, right?

But how different is lifting a CD in a store from downloading it off the Net?

Napster boasted 70,000 users before it was shut down last July. Seventy thousand people illegally traded millions of songs each day. Most of these people are still downloading music through the various other file sharing networks such as Morpheus, Kazaa, Gnutella and private systems like our own Resnet. At UB, and most other universities, students without a directory or two of MP3 files are the minority.

We realize that trading the works our musical recording artists is stealing, but we somehow manage to do it with little ethical restraint. This sheds a fascinating light on our morality. Why is it that while we understand both are stealing, we are able to click and drag thousands of songs onto our computers?

Many people avoid a sense of stealing through a common - but flawed - rationalization. We convince ourselves first that the record labels are the ones we are stealing from. Secondly, we conclude it is reasonable to steal from these companies because they are middlemen, and little more than opportunistic toll collectors.

While the record labels may be taking an enormous cut of the profits, they are the ones who pay to produce the albums. They hire the artists and pay for the recording studio, staffs of engineers, graphic designers, publicists, marketers, distribution firms and numerous others. Without the displeasingly powerful labels, few new artists would be able to afford the costs of producing an album, which is why artists agree to give them a cut of sales.

Furthermore, with or without record labels, if we do not pay for the music we listen to, it will not be possible for artists to continue to produce albums.

Our lack of emotion as we draw musical works from the electronic ether is also facilitated by our distance from the victim. When standing in a store, compact disc in hand and price tag before the eyes, we are driven to consider the impact that stealing has upon the store in a concrete monetary value. We can see the employees, and sometimes the owner, and we are engrossed by the guilt of those ramifications of the theft.

Sitting behind a computer screen, it is difficult to envision the impact downloading a song will have. Digital music seems to have less of a reality to it because it cannot be touched or felt, and it doesn't seem to take up any space. It takes only a couple of clicks to download, and a couple of minutes to hear. And not a single bad thing happened. Or did it?

File sharing systems though can greatly benefit artists. They allow the curious to explore, to taste different artists and songs, and find new music to purchase. Between 1998 and 1999, when Napster took its first leap to file sharing fame, album sales soared a record-setting 6.3 percent, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. And in concert with the shut down of Napster in July 2001, album sales fell 3 percent, the most significant loss for the record industry in a decade, according to the BBC.

Napster is planning to reopen as a paid membership service, following in the footsteps of MusicNet and PressPlay, who charge $10 to $25 a month. They allow users to listen to a limited number of songs - from libraries a fraction of the size of Napster's in its heyday - without saving them, making the user a DJ but not an owner.

These services are not likely to receive mass public support. People are reluctant to pay for a service they previously, and presently, enjoyed for free. These attempts by record labels to capitalize on the popularity of the file-sharing frenzy are offensive to the majority of computer users who believe the Internet should be free and to those who view recording labels as thieves themselves. These services are simply not enough of a compromise.

Artists and record labels would be wise to donate a small portion of their recordings to a massive, free public library of music. It should not contain every song recorded in history, but it could allow people to sample two or three songs from each album of every artist to ever record.

Such a system would have the free nature that MP3 traders demand. It could house its song library on a central server to be more complete and reliable than current systems that store files on the individual hard drives of thousands of users. It would be popular, ethical, lucrative, and the most efficient marketing tool in the history of capitalism.



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