This past week an open letter to a young intern, Emily White, went viral—bringing up once again the question of artists’ rights and filesharing. The letter was written by David Lowell on the blog “The Trichordist,” in which he responds to White’s blog entry titled “I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With.” White, however, admits to having over 11,000 songs on her iPod. Lowell sees this as a problem.
My favorite part was his a fortiori appeal with pop movements:
I also find this all this sort of sad. Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy fair trade coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly. Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops. Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China. Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples. On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation. Except for one thing—artist rights.
The whole story begins with Emily White’s feeling that something is wrong with the way she’s getting her music. People in those kinds of situations ask themselves, is it actually wrong? And then they go through hell to make sure that they can answer no or it depends, because it would just be so damn inconvenient to answer yes. Finding the answer to that question will then dictate what I should do.
But the questions I would ask, even if they don’t answer the question of morality directly, would help me figure out what I should do. The questions I would ask are: 1) Is it an entirely good thing to download this music? 2) Is anyone going get on my case about it? 3) Will I feel any sort of guilt if I buy the music? And ultimately, 4) Will the feeling that something is wrong go away if I chose to buy my music?
Let’s say we can’t answer the question of morality (is it wrong?). What we can do is answer the question of ethics—that is, what do I do now in order to have a clear conscience? And the easy answer: If you don’t want to risk that questionable feeling of guilt, don’t download.
Avoiding the arguments and answer to the question of morality may be a lack of philosophic courage, but refusing to act (regardless of unrighteousness) is surely shows practical and ethical prudence.
There are a lot of other sides to this. There’s the artistic side, the philosophic side, the legal side, the economics side, the side of how it should be in a perfect world, and the side of how it should be in the real world, all of which I’d eventually like to analyze. But for now, there is one thing to get rid of that feeling of possible guilt—stop downloading music.
This is how White ends her piece: “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” Emphasis added, because “requiring” all that you want, want, want is too much, much too much. And I guess it’s not too much to ask, but you’re doing a lot more than asking for it.
I’ve suggested a philosophy of non-action, which in some situations may be a careless or dangerous one. But risking your integrity for some music? That’s not a calculated risk. I’m sure there are some things that you are sure about how you should live your life. Go do those things. Don’t risk crashing on the piracy wave.
But thank you, Emily White, for asking for it. It would certainly be nice and convenient for everyone to get free music. And you’re right, it should be like that—but not yet. That’s not quite how it works yet. Thanks also to David Lowell for the kind, intelligent, even amusing thoughts (especially his ending edits) and much-more-than-words letter.