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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Tone Deaf to a Moral Dilemma?

Millions download songs illegally but don't feel guilty. The industry wants to shake up their consciences. Targeting parents is one tactic.

September 02, 2003|Jon Healey and Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writers

Susan Philips has a conscience so sensitive to ethical failings that she feels guilty if she leaves her shopping cart adrift in the grocery store parking lot.

Her influence is reflected in her elder daughter's career choice: Miriam Philips, 22, wants to be a rabbi.

On at least one moral dilemma, though, mother and daughter are on opposite sides. To Susan, downloading music on the Internet without permission is wrong. To Miriam, it's just what you do when you go to college.

"My freshman year I was like, 'No, that isn't right.' I wouldn't do that at all," Miriam said at her family's kitchen table, two blocks from the sand in Seal Beach. But by her sophomore year at Brandeis University, she said, she was steering her iMac to free music, collecting enough songs to fill 150 CDs.

Philips' shift helps explain why the record industry has been losing its battle to shape the public's definition of theft in a digital society. Music labels have won a series of court rulings and poured millions of dollars into marketing the message that downloading free songs amounts to online shoplifting -- but CD sales keep sinking.

Now the record companies are readying their most desperate bid yet to shake up the public psyche: The industry plans to bombard college students, parents of teenage downloaders and other Internet users with lawsuits alleging millions of dollars in copyright violations.

One goal is to persuade parents to crack down on their children's file sharing before an entire generation comes to expect music to be free. Unlike Susan Philips, many parents see no problem if their kids download tunes, and some actively encourage it for their own ends.

Some observers argue, however, that the effort is as futile as the federal government's attempt to ban booze 80 years ago. About half of the Internet users in the United States, some 60 million people, copy music, movies and other digital goodies from each other for free through online networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus -- a statistic that suggests a culture of piracy already has solidified. Said one teenage Kazaa user, "It's hard for me to see it as wrong when so many people are doing it."

She reflects the view of many downloaders. They understand that what they're doing may break the rules of copyright law, but they don't see anything immoral about it. In fact, some even argue that copying a song online isn't "stealing" because the owner still has the original track and still can sell the CD.

Miriam Philips, for example, said that she and her friends at Brandeis knew that their music copying "was illegal and why it was illegal." Similarly, two recent surveys found that a growing number of people acknowledge it's wrong to download songs without permission, but that it doesn't stop many of them from doing it.

Like countless millions, Philips said she felt no guilt about downloading music from a shared campus folder. Not downloading "is the normal ethics of my life," she said, but at college her ethical meter was, well, recalibrated.

And she offered no sympathy for the record labels or well-known artists.

"They're big. They're rich. They can deal with it," she said, adding later: "You can argue that it's illegal but not unethical once they're rich."

Said Deborah Rhode, law professor and director of the Keck Center on Legal Ethics at Stanford University: "There's a view that no one's really harmed. And that turns out to be one of the major predictors of dishonest behavior, whether people can actually draw a connection between their actions and some concrete identifiable victim."

Plus, the ephemeral nature of online music makes it difficult for some to conceive of downloading as stealing. Philips, for instance, said she would never download a movie for free. That's not acceptable even by her college standards.

What makes music different?

"I guess I don't put as high a value on it," said Philips, whose tastes run from Aaron Copland and Stephen Sondheim to Barenaked Ladies and the Byrds.

Expressing a common view, she said music was "more of a background thing," providing flavor to her day but not a focus. As a result, she said, it's "something that doesn't feel quite as tangible" as a movie.

Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, also noted that downloaders copy songs without taking them away from the people sharing them. "Normally, we think that sharing is a good thing," Zittrain said. "It's not just, 'Hey, we're all looting.' It's not a looter's mind-set."

File sharing networks are like groups of libraries that invite people to roll photocopiers from stack to stack. To "share" songs on a "peer-to-peer" network such as Kazaa, for example, users simply put them into a folder on their computer and open the folder to others on the network. Anyone searching for those songs can use Kazaa to find the computers where they're stored, then download copies onto his or her PC.

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