When you think of a criminal there are a few images that could quickly pop into your head. Possibly some shady guy loitering in a darkened alley somewhere late at night – maybe he’s wearing a hoodie or a balaclava… or both. What you might not think of is a cosy late-night bedroom, a fluffy pillow and the soft gleam of a computer screen illuminating a dozy student plus his-or-her headphones. Well they could easily be the one breaking the law.
Illegally downloading music. Let’s be honest here – we all do it. Ever since the rise (and fall) of Napster, illegal downloading and file-sharing has become both far more common and far easier than actually buying music. Even after fines, law changes and the shutdown of websites like Livewire and Megaupload, it seems like illegal downloading is still as simple, accessible and widely spread as it ever has been. And why wouldn’t it be… who doesn’t love free stuff? No scare tactics from entertainment companies or copyright law shifts are going to change the fact that people will always choose to get for free what they could be paying for. Music is being downloading illegally, pretty much non-stop, everyday, all over the world. That’s not the question at hand here. The question is – is this really a bad thing.
Obviously the “illegal” part points in that direction – there is a risk involved with free downloading as it is, after all, a criminal offence. You can tell yourself as much as you like it’s totally harmless, but like it or not what you’re doing is downloading a product completely for free and without giving anything back to its creators. Basically, it’s stealing. But is it really causing all this supposed damage to the music industry? Countless studies – both independent and commissioned by entertainment companies – have been done on the subject, and the results are a pretty mixed bag. Some argue that illegal downloading is seriously damaging the music business, some argue it’s having no notable effect at all and a scare handful even argues that overall it’s beneficial to the industry. On one hand, there’s the fairly logical argument that the more people are downloading music for free, the less people are buying that music – so much so that music companies are claiming billions of dollars in sales lost to internet downloads. On a closer look though, it’s not quite that simple.
For a start, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would actually go out and buy all, even a fraction of the music they download for free. If you were downloading, say, an album or two a week and then decided to stop and buy all those albums instead then the price would quickly pile up and become unrealistic. Also you can make the point that, especially for smaller less well-known bands and artists, the more music that’s being shared (illegally or not) the better exposure that artist is getting. That will then lead to them making more from live shows and merchandise sales, to make up for any money lost to illegal downloads.
And if you ask me… I’ll admit that any ethics justifying downloading music illegally are a bit shaky. But that said, I don’t think it’s an unforgivable crime and I definitely don’t think it will be the downfall of the music industry as we know it. The way I see it, whether you like it or not illegal downloading is here to stay. The music industry is just going to have to find a way to come to terms with that.