Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Chuck D v. Sheryl Crow

The above title is not the name of an episode of MTV's claymation series "Celebrity Death Match" but rather the name I have given the case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding file sharing. WHile Chuck and Sheryl aren't in the case name, they have been active supporting either the file-sharing techies or the music industry, respectively. The NY Times has an article today giving a basic run down on the case, but the opposing arguments kind of go like this:

File-sharing advocates: You cannot allow the music industry, or any industry, to have a technological veto over developing software. A ruling against file sharing would temporarily curb file sharing (and thus copyright infringements), but would also stunt American growth in technological innovation.

Music Industry: File sharing software is all about stealing. It does not possess the potentially legal uses that VCRs do, but rather is entirely designed to screw the music industry and artists out of their rightful profits.

Usually, I am not particularly sympathetic to an argument that runs that deciding X will "stunt" the growth of an economic process. This is for two reasons. First, most industries are adapatable enough that they will learn to operate within the new rule structure efficiently. Second, if a country wants to "stunt" the growth of an economic good, there is usually a reason that they would make that decision that is apart from an ignorance of the economic consequences. This second point is essentially how I feel about stem cell research. Sure, disallowing (or very limited allowances) of stem cell research in the U.S. DOES put the U.S. behind in innovations that stem cell research could advance, but the country (through its representatives) has decided that it has moral qualms with the research that make the sacrifice palatable.

In this case, however, I have been unable to find a non-economic reason to curb file-sharing software. I suppose one could argue that we have a moral obligation to thwart theft and that file-sharing software facilitates such theft. I don't think this argument flies though, because many studies show that the average citizen simply doesn't view file-sharing as theft (or at least theft bad enough to be punished with any regularity). While you might argue that this view is self-serving, I've got news for opponents of file sharing: If the citizenry doesn't think X is theft...it's not. Sure, it may literally be theft, but if they don't want it prosecuted under such laws, it won't be.

Also, I think my first hesitancy in embracing the techies logic cuts against the music industry here. If only the industry displayed some creativity, it could learn how to make file-sharing more profitable for them. It's their current unwillingness to deviate from prior success that makes their future success more questionable.

In this battle (just as in my high school / college days) I am squarely on Chuck D's side.

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