File sharing remains a confusing and controversial issue on college campuses. As the practice becomes increasingly common, many college students and administrators are seeking clarification on the legal and ethical status of sharing copyrighted material.
A student may be well aware that selling copied music to his friends is illegal, yet he is often asked to download portions of textbooks for his classes. In fact, sharing educational materials by college faculty is quite common, and creates an intellectually stimulating environment for college campuses. So, many are wondering if there should be a compromise between a “free flow of information and ideas” and upholding intellectual property rights. This includes the editors at Duke University’s The Chronicle, who argue: “In the end, colleges must seek a middle ground, balancing the necessity for intellectual property protections with the contingencies of societal expectations in an increasingly connected, digitized world.”
It’s not clear what exactly the authors mean by “societal expectations,” but their vagueness is dangerous. If what they mean is a university’s usage of fair use provisions and other licensing agreements, fine. But if it means that people expect to be able to obtain whatever intellectual property they want—music, movies, books, lectures—without paying, then such an expectation is more than unwarranted—it’s wrong. And to call for a “middle ground” on these terms would mean “balancing” the rights of content producers against the baseless expectation of consumers to be handed a product without payment.
Writing in another piece for The Undercurrent, Rituparna Basu explains:
The student who file shares, whether he realizes it or not, is engaged in an injustice comparable to the injustice he would commit if he stole candy from a store owner. The recording company saw the value in the artist’s talent, gave the artist the means to create his music, and then compiled this music for our enjoyment (on specific terms). Denying producers, artists, and distributors the value they seek, whether this is money, publicity, or recognition, in return for enjoying their products denies them the ability to enjoy the well-earned fruits of their labor. One of these fruits includes being able to produce more of the music that we love.
There are certainly many legitimate, legal ways to share and distribute content. For example, some musicians and writers release their content for free in hopes of making their living in other ways through income from their audience. These kinds of distribution reflect a producer’s and a distributor’s right to determine the price and terms of sale (in some cases, free).
But many try to lump these kinds of legitimate sharing with illicit sharing that doesn’t respect the rights of content producers or distributors. In the latter case, to call for a middle ground in the debate on file sharing is to call, in effect, for a compromise between intellectual property rights and theft, as if there is a legitimate amount of each in a proper mixture. In other words, compromise would mean that stealing is acceptable when we want it to be or can get away with it. But creators of intellectual material have nothing to gain from such a compromise, and ultimately neither do we as consumers—if we want to encourage the continued and expanding availability of the content we seek. In an environment where theft can be justified for any reason, only the thief can benefit. As philosopher Ayn Rand put it:
There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar; offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender—the recognition of his right to one’s property.
Instead, we should uphold a firmly uncompromising stance on intellectual property rights. To seek a middle ground undermines the foundation of a marketplace for content and threatens the free flow of information and ideas, fostering an environment where producers of intellectual material are stifled, as are their consumers.