To Be Absolutely Frank

Download Freeloaders

What are people thinking when they rip off others' intellectual property?

By 9.26.03

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What are people thinking when they download music or movies illegally, or buy bootleg discs from sidewalk vendors? The answer is, they're not thinking.

The New York Times says 60 million have used file-sharing programs like KaZaA to rip off other people's intellectual property -- a practice that the recording industry this month filed 261 lawsuits in order to stop.

Surely only a fraction of this group, as large as the population of Great Britain, have the conscience of thieves. Surely most would hesitate to shoplift even without the risk of getting caught. And even if they did succumb to such temptation, surely most would be ashamed to tell their friends, neighbors and classmates.

It's different with intellectual property. Many don't think of it as property at all. Being told to pay more than they would like for their entertainment strikes them as outrageous. In the words of one 16-year-old offender, quoted by the Times: "RECORD COMPANIES ARE UNFAIR AND ARE PART OF THE SYSTEM, GO AGAINST THE SYSTEM!!!!!!!!!"

The idiocy of this statement is so pure it's almost delicious. The system this girl hates is the one that produces the music she presumably loves. If it weren't for the record companies, she'd have nothing to listen to but her own humming, assuming she could come up with a tune on her own. (The argument that efforts to stop file-sharing are not only impossible but counterproductive, because illegal downloading actually stimulates record sales, is intriguing yet ethically irrelevant.)

The industry hopes to teach the young that piracy is wrong with a lesson plan it's distributing to 36,000 American classrooms. Part of the plan is a role-playing game called "Starving Artist," which the Times describes this way:

" ... groups of students are encouraged to come up with an idea for a musical act, write lyrics and design a CD cover only to be told by a volunteer teacher their work can be downloaded free. According to the lesson, the volunteer would then 'ask them how they felt when they realized that their work was stolen and that they would not get anything for their efforts.'"

Call me cynical, but I can't believe this will do much good. Any reasonably alert kid will reply that none of his musical idols is going to starve as a result of downloading. Eminem is in no danger of going back to the trailer park because people are listening to him for free.

It's the same with movies. I'll admit that I was tempted earlier this year when a guy around the corner from my apartment offered me a DVD of Catch Me If You Can for 10 euros -- even before it had hit local theaters. Steven Spielberg didn't need my money, I reasoned as I toyed with buying. What finally dissuaded me was a tenuous but genuine feeling of solidarity with the director-tycoon. After all, I make my living selling my intellectual property, too, though at a rather more modest rate than Spielberg.

I could of course have come up with a less self-interested reason to scorn the bootleggers. Forget about celebrity directors. What about the guys who make their coffee? Many thousands earn their living in the movie industry, which in turn supports other industries employing millions -- all but a few of them ordinary people with middle- and working-class incomes. The sorts of people that all but the most coarsened of us would feel guilty ripping off.

So the Motion Picture Association of America is right to feature crew members, including a set painter and a makeup artist, in its new anti-pirating campaign. Maybe this will have some effect, though it's hard to be hopeful. Copying simply doesn't feel like stealing, and most people do what they feel -- not what they think -- is right.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.