It’s Not Stealing Because I Don’t Want It to Be

When stripped of rationalizations, file sharing is clearly an act of theft. When Boston University grad student Joel Tenenbaum was recently charged for illegally downloading and distributing thirty songs, he did not express remorse.  Instead, he likened the situation to underage drinking, saying, “I don’t regret drinking underage in college, even though I got busted a few times.”  Tenenbaum is not the only one who feels this way.  Despite the potential consequences of illegally downloading music or movies, file sharing remains rampant in colleges.

When asked why they do it, some students point out that file sharing does not seem to be harming the entertainment industry.  Actors and musicians are still making plenty of money, and the entertainment and recording companies can afford the slight financial loss due to illegal downloading.

But compare file sharing with a prototypical example of stealing—not paying for a candy bar in a grocery store.  Most students who engage in file sharing would not steal a candy bar, even though taking one candy bar without paying for it will likely not cause the store any significant financial harm.  Why not?

In some cases, the motive might be fear of getting caught.  Most of us, however, would still not steal the candy bar, even if we knew we wouldn’t get caught, because we recognize that it’s wrong.  We understand that the candy bar belongs to the store owner, not to us.

Even though stealing just one candy bar is not enough to do serious harm to the store owner, we implicitly recognize that to the extent we deny him the compensation he seeks for his work, we deprive him of the ability to live his life as he has worked hard to be able to do—such as being able to pay his mortgage and save up for his children’s college tuition.  This also means it will be more difficult for him to sustain his business, making it harder for him to make the products that we value available to us.

The argument that the entertainment industry makes plenty of money and can afford the loss due to illegal downloading is, therefore, only a rationalization.  Most students who file share wouldn’t steal Brad Pitt’s latte just because he wouldn’t notice the loss.  In such cases, they would take the moral right of ownership seriously.

Yet such students do continue to file share.  Many reject that the analogy to shoplifting applies.  When you steal a candy bar, they note, the store no longer has it.  What are you really “stealing” when you download a song from bitTorrent?  The person from whom you downloaded it still has a copy of the song.  Indeed, that is why the practice is identified as file sharing, not file taking.

This argument, however, ignores the fact that the recording company owns the rights to the song.  After investing its money to have the artist produce the song, the company offered it to willing buyers on the condition that it would not be copied.   In buying the product, the student agreed to abide by those terms.  Should an honest buyer respect that agreement?  Or should he only pretend that he will respect the terms and then violate them?

File sharers insist that the latter is not dishonest.  But clearly it is.  Had the buyer called the recording company and told them he intended to distribute copies of the song, they would not have sold him the file.  It is only because he agreed to abide by the terms that they sold him the music.  For him to then go back on his word is a clear act of dishonesty.

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.

Some students offer yet another argument in favor of file sharing—that file sharing is actually good for recording companies and artists because it gives their work more exposure.  This, too, seems like a rationalization.  The same analysis would apply to stealing a candy bar, yet these students don’t steal candy bars on that basis.  The fundamental issue is not whether such an action might benefit the owner in the future but whether the owner is able to determine the terms of distribution of his products.  If we are unsatisfied with his price, we are free to look for other music elsewhere, but we do not have the right to forcibly take it from him with the unjustified consolation that this action will benefit him in the long run.  Of course, if some artists offer their music for free, that is their prerogative.  Indeed, there is good reason for rising artists looking for exposure to consider doing this.  But if other artists seek monetary compensation for their music, that should similarly be their prerogative.

When stripped of rationalizations, at root, file sharing is morally equivalent to shoplifting.  It is stealing from everyone who put forth their time and effort to create the music and movies we enjoy.  Students who file share either don’t understand these arguments, or if they do, ignore them because they want music without having to pay for it.  Either way, it’s stealing.

We, as consumers, should be eager to repay those who produce products and services that bring immense value to our lives.  The people who make our favorite movies and our favorite music are not our slaves or servants. They work to produce those goods and, just like everyone else, they expect and deserve to be paid by those who use their products.  And it is to our benefit to repay these individuals—it is, after all, this payment that motivates and enables them to keep producing those very goods for us to enjoy.

It is easy to forego the responsibility of doing the right thing and paying for your music.  Downloading a song from bitTorrent is quick and easy.  Oftentimes, we can also get away with peeking over at someone else’s test paper or lying on a job application.  But when we look in the mirror, do we want our reflection to show pride in being an honest person?  Or do we want to see a dishonest person who does the wrong thing to his own and others’ detriment just because he can get away with it?  That, dear reader, is for you to decide.

Rituparna is a junior at Penn State University, pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology.  She is president of the Penn State Objectivist Club and is enrolled in the Objectivist Academic Center.  Rituparna won first place in the worldwide The Fountainhead essay contest in 2007.

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