More 0n Ed Bott's "RIAA vs Us" poll

Fred Dabney
Mon Oct 22 16:45:52 EDT 2007

After reading through hundreds of comments to last week's digital media 
ethics poll, I've come to the realization that my readers are much more 
rational and reasonable than the entertainment industry. Overall, I see 
plenty of common sense in those responses, including a clear respect for 
property rights and an insistence on a reasonable approach to personal use, 
one that's consistent with centuries of historical precedent.

Earlier this week, I looked at the enormous disconnect between what 
consumers see as their personal right to use purchased digital media and 
what the industry thinks those rights should be. To see another gaping chasm 
in attitudes, look at these answers from the same poll. More than 8,000 
votes were cast on each of these two questions, which address the question 
of music sharing:
Is it OK to borrow a CD from a friend and rip it to your hard drive?

Yes: 34%
Sometimes/Depends: 13%
No: 53%
Is it proper to buy a CD and make a copy for a friend?
Yes: 27%
Sometimes/Depends: 8%
No: 65%

I find those results remarkable. At a bare minimum, 27% of you think that 
friends should feel free to copy commercial music CDs. The music industry 
says that's outright theft. No exceptions:

If you make unauthorized copies of copyrighted music recordings, you're 
stealing. You're breaking the law, and you could be held legally liable for 
thousands of dollars in damages. . Criminal penalties can run up to 5 years 
in prison and/or $250,000 in fines, even if you didn't do it for monetary or 
financial or commercial gain.

So, are music consumers just greedy or ethically challenged? I don't think 
so. A lot of the confusion is over the expanding meaning of words like 
"personal" and "friend," which meant something different in the 1970s when 
the entertainment industry as we know it today rose into being. Sharing 
music or movies with friends in the 1970s meant sharing a physical space - a 
dorm room, a living room, a concert hall, a movie theater. Today, people who've 
never met manage to make casual acquaintances and build friendships; their 
shared presence includes online communities and more private spaces that are 
strikingly similar to their physical counterparts. The desire to share 
remains the same; the tools to share are easier and not limited by physical 
objects (records and CDs) or even physical spaces.
For music fans, then and now, sharing has been about the music. As one 
commenter perceptively noted, if no one hears, no one buys:
I think it's okay to share music among friends and family. I would only 
share out if I thought that the friend was unlikely to buy it but would 
enjoy the artist or should be introduced to the artist. I wouldn't rip a 
borrowed disk that I would have bought. I have bought quite a few disks 
because I was introduced by friends.

The comments on the poll also emphasized the importance of "mix" CDs among 
music fans. This commenter argues that reasonable sharing benefits everyone, 
including the artists and the industry:

Personally I feel it's fine to share media among friends and family because 
it's a form of discovery and promotion. I've had quite a few mix CDs made 
for me which is obviously "illegal" yet I've discovered some great bands 
that way, bands that I've in turn bought their next albums, gone to their 
concerts or in turn promoted them to other friends. I've also discovered 
that some much hyped bands were horrible and I would have wasted $10 on a CD 
I'd never listen to, which is what I'm sure the RIAA is counting on as well.
I struggled to reconcile the differences in the response to two questions 
covering apparently similar activities. Nearly half of the respondents (47%) 
think it's always or sometimes OK to borrow a friend's CD and rip it; a 
smaller group (35%) think it's always or sometimes OK to copy a CD for a 

So what's the distinction? The comments offer some clues:
It's OK if you're replacing a damaged copy that you already paid for once:
In most of the music copying questions, "it depends" on whether or not I've 
already bought a previous copy (and subsequently lost or destroyed it).

This comment takes the same argument even farther:
I think you should be able to copy a CD from a friend if you've purchased a 
copy of that same material previously, such as a cassette tape, album, or 
even 8 track.
It's OK if the original CD is no longer available:
Is it OK to borrow a CD from a friend and rip it to your hard drive? While I 
would normally consider this unacceptable, I might make an exception for a 
CD which was out-of-print and unavailable used at a reasonable price, or for 
a CD which I own if my copy has been damaged or proven to be defective. For 
example, I have at least two or three CDs that played OK when I purchased 
them, but at least some tracks no longer play correctly and the discs have 
long been out of print. If I could borrow a CD to make copies of the tracks 
that no longer play, I would probably do it.

It's OK because the price is too high and the industry is ripping its 
customers off:

My issues with DRM and digital media ethics have to do with the record 
companies, not the artists. I have yet to see a convincing argument that the 
artificially high prices charged by record companies for CDs does anything 
for the music business in general or the average artist. I rarely buy new 
CDs, because of the price. I rarely download from torrents, etc., because of 
the file quality and legal issues. But when faced with the opportunity to 
purchase music of high quality at a reasonable price - say $5 - $8 for a 
complete CD - I will spend a good amount of money. In any given year, I will 
spend $300 to $500 on affordable music. That is money that the music 
companies will never see. I imagine that there are thousands of listeners 
out there like me.

Some of the arguments in those comments are pure rationalization, of course, 
a way to provide moral cover for the act of getting something for nothing. 
But that's the minority, in my opinion. Most casual sharing between friends 
is about the desire to share experiences, the same "Hey, you have to hear 
this" impulse that a previous generation felt in pre-digital days.

I'm highly skeptical that the mainstream entertainment industry will ever 
find a way to reach common ground with its customers on this issue. The 
RIAA, after all, is run by lobbyists and lawyers. For them, it's not about 
the music, it's about the product. They're highly motivated to create a 
rigid definition without exceptions, one that will stand up in court even if 
it's an abject failure in the court of public opinion. As their customers 
have already discovered, new technology makes it possible to share tunes in 
all sorts of ways. Ratcheting down the rhetoric and recognizing that some 
sharing and trading among music-loving friends is reasonable would be good 
for artists, labels, and consumers alike. Unfortunately, crafting such a 
policy would require that the industry trust its customers and be willing to 
accept a certain amount of abuse as inevitable.

The chances that that will happen are, sadly, about the same as the chances 
that the Beatles will reunite.
Up next: DRM and other stupid business models.

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' 
experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications.

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