Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Groundwork of Metaphysics of Internet Piracy

 Arguments about internet piracy have, like piracy itself, ravaged the internet at least since Napster’s wonderful explosion in popularity followed by its just as glorious collapse.  But recently an article written by college student and NPR intern EmilyWhite has reignited this always contentious debate.  On NPR’s All Songs Considered blog, Emily White details her music buying experience, or, more precisely, a nearly total lack of it.  Through the process of friends who uploaded songs onto various devices, Kazaa, and ripping albums from her university’s radio station, Emily estimates that she has only bought perhaps fifteen albums in her lifetime, but owns around 11,000 songs.  Wisely, Emily feels somewhat guilty about this.  She notes that many of the flippant, poorly thought out solutions to the problem of easy access to free music, like “sell more t-shirts,” are completely inadequate.  But she also doesn’t really offer any solutions of her own beyond a vague call for a more convenient way to access music.  (Is clicking a mouse really all that inconvenient?)

Emily’s article garnered a slew of rebuttals, the most popular being the response of Dave Lowery, singer for the bands Cracker and Camper Von Beethoven and current professor of music business.  Where Emily’s solutions were somewhat vague, Lowery’s response was far more interested in clear details, and while I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, I’m fairly certain it does a nice job of voicing the larger frustrations felt among the musician community.  The debate expanded from there with people taking both sides.  In the ensuing discourse there were two go to assumptions that really got under my skin: 1) generation gap politics and 2) coddling the young.  These might seem contradictory at first, but upon further examination they fit nicely next to one another. 

A quick glance at any comment board that dealt with Emily’s post will garner a slew of arguments about generational norms.  The act of stealing tens of thousands of songs, the argument goes, can be chalked up to those worthless millennials who are selfish and want everything handed to them, never mind that a generation ago the means to illegally download this number of songs just didn’t exist.  David Lowery’s post, at times, falls back on this generational finger pointing, and it’s one of his weakest arguments.  Travis Morrison, of Dismemberment Plan fame,responded to the assumption that millennials must some how be more morally bankrupt than past generations by noting that he as well as many of his friends stole music all the time back in the day.  Of course, he doesn’t really deal with the fact that it used to require a good amount of effort to steal back in the day where it has become nearly labor free today. 

Regardless, some of this generational resentment comes down to a vague anxiety plenty of baby boomers have that their place in the world of popular culture is quickly being replaced.  Couple this with the fact that the decline of the middle class tracks with the political rise of the baby boomers, and you have an entire generation worried about their own legacy and willing to lash out at their youngers.  Recent years have done damage to the narrative the boomers have constructed of themselves: principled actors who protested against the Vietnam War out of moral convictions and helped form a more open society.  Of course, this narrative is hurt by the fact that Nixon actually won the youth vote in his election runs, suggesting that plenty of the baby boomers were less concerned with American imperialism than they were with the fact that now they were being asked to sacrifice in order to support our overseas adventures.  In other words, no one cared about the war when the poor were dying, but as soon as the middle class were asked to join, then the youth culture of the late 60s started to pay attention.

This generational resentment finds its way into plenty of arguments, and my guess is that we will be seeing it for some time.  The other obnoxious trend I’ve noticed surrounding the Emily White article is a protective, sometimes condescending, tone people take when defending 21-year-old Emily.  There are a number of posts that accuse Lowery of “yelling at a 21 year old,” as if she isn’t old enough to handle a rebuttal to her public statement.  In one particular defense of Emily’s original post, written confusingly enough by another person named Emily White, the author begins by telling the first Emily that she “wrote a great blog post!”  (yes, with an exclamation mark).  I know that if you’re 21, then you’re just barely old enough to drink.  But you’re also old enough to handle some criticism.  You’re considered an adult at 18, and we do no service to young adults if we don’t call out their dumb ideas as dumb ideas.  When Emily writes that what she really wants is some vague notion of convenience, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell her, “You know, Emily, that’s kind of stupid.”

What is perhaps most frustrating aspect of the internet piracy argument is the fact that people are constantly speaking past one another.  There are those who are concerned with making sure that musicians can make a decent living so that they can make more great music.  On the other end, there are those “free culture” extremists who rightly note that technology has shifted the old business models, pointing out the benefits of this new technology, but plug their ears when people start talking about reasonable compensation for artists.  There are two related but separate issues at stake in this conversation.  First, the macro issue of business models and corralling the buying behavior of large groups of people.  Second, the micro issue of individual moral choice.  We might agree that downloading music without compensating the artist is a bad ethical choice, but that doesn’t mean that the problem will dissipate any time soon.  This means we must come up with a new business plan to better address this problem and make sure that artists receive enough compensation to continue to produce great art.

But at the same time (and this should really go without saying), just because a large number of people are stealing music does not make it ethical for you as an individual to also engage in this same behavior.  This part of the argument reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” from his treatise, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  In this text, Kant attempts to provide the basis for an understanding of morals that are universal, separate from any particular time and place.  In order to deal with this problem (and I’ll skip all of the intricate abstraction that he develops), Kant comes up with the idea of the “categorical imperative,” which he defines, in its simplest terms, as the maxim that “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (70).  So in order to adjudge whether or not illegally downloading music is an ethical choice, we should ask ourselves what would happen if everyone were to make the same decision.  Obviously, if no one paid for music, then the entire industry would pretty much fall apart, and we would have a lot less great art in the world.  In fact, those who pirate music have benefited greatly from those of us who have purchased our music over the years (or mostly purchased our music, as the case may be). 

We need to have both a discussion about the micro and macro aspect of internet piracy.  Each of us should determine what sort of ethical choices we need to make.  But at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that people will automatically just stop pirating, especially cash strapped college students who love music.  And as we have this conversation, let’s not confuse the overarching issue of business models with individual ethical choice. 

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