Music Piracy: Real Crime or Just an Abstract Idea?

The practice of music piracy is still widely regarded as the main reason for the global drop in conventional music sales. But not by everyone. It could well be argued that music piracy is more of an abstract idea rather than an actual phenomena. And while it’s true that most recording artists despise the idea of music piracy, a lot of consumers think it’s okay. This difference in opinion could be explained by the fact that the term ‘piracy’ is in itself ambiguous and can be tailored to fit almost any argument. It follows then, that before we even try to understand how music piracy is affecting the industry, we must first find a contextual definition for the phrase.

“The copying and distributing of copies of a piece of music for which the composer, recording artist, or copyright-holding record company did not give consent...” is how The Economic Times puts it. But when we take a look at, we find their definition piracy is cited as the much broader. “... unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented intervention, trademarked product, etc.”


The latter definition is more than a little harsh. It means that any one of us can be accused of piracy simply because we sing our favourite songs under the shower and someone overhears us. But American Federal Laws go even further than that. According to Title 17, Code Sections 506 and 501, unauthorised recording is an illegal act even if we don’t listen to, or otherwise make use of the recording afterwards.


Actual theft or mere vandalism?

All of which brings us to the conclusion that infringements of copyright via illegal music sharing is not only difficult to define, it’s darned hard to quantify. No wonder then, that record labels use piracy as a convenient scapegoat for all their problems regarding dropping sales and the decline of market segments; using such wide-scoped definitions enables them to conjure up huge numbers of probable pirates and therefore inflate the costs of the damage caused.


On its most basic level, piracy indicates some kind of theft. Someone took something without the consent of the owner. But seeing as it is the sharing of illegally downloaded files which is at the heart of the practice, isn’t this the exact opposite of what really goes on? Wouldn’t it then be more accurate to treat the sharing of said music files as an act of vandalism rather than theft?


And here’s the rub. Whereas file sharing may well damage the copyright of protected material, it does not, generally speaking, bring any benefit or reward to the culprit. So, would we be going too far out on a limb by saying that it is the speed and ease of sharing that is the true root of the record producers’ anxiety?


Enter the Napster

Back when CDs were new, it was easy enough to copy a disc and pass it on to family and friends. Yet it consumed time and caused some kind of financial cost (empty discs, electricity etc.). All of that changed when Napster appeared. File sharing exploded. At its peak, Napster had 57 million users downloading, reproducing and sharing music files that other users had uploaded. And all for free. Yet this was only the beginning. By the time Napster shut down, hundreds if not thousands of similar sites had sprung up all over the Internet.


So-called ‘peer-to-peer torrents’ led by sites such as eMule and Limewire became irresistible and practically inexhaustible sources for online music fans the world over. The World Wide Web turned out to be the perfect breeding ground for illegal music sharing, and the practice grew to such proportions, international legal bodies and even entire governments were left helpless in its wake.


But we don’t want to go too Don Quixote here. That file sharing is damaging the music industry is a fact we have to accept, even if we can argue about the level or which kind of damage. It is probably true that ‘piracy’ does deprive the record companies of the funds they need to expand. Facts and figures supporting this are freely attainable. According to a study by Jupiter Research, acts of online piracy cost the UK music industry over £1.5 billion between 2002 and 2012. Across the pond, our American cousins recorded a loss of $12 and a half billion each year, plus an estimated 71,000 jobs also fell to a variety of knock on effects caused by illegal file sharing.


Quo vadis, file sharing?

It would be easy for us then to conclude that piracy has a very real and negative impact on the music industry. But let’s not forget that most of the data available to measure that impact comes from the industry itself. Add to this the results of a European study that followed 15,000 oblivious Internet users over a period of one year and concluded that in the absence of any illegal download sites,sales from legal music sites would have risen by a meager 2%. Hardly proof of the massive displacement in sales that the record companies like to shout from the rooftops.


In the face of so much conflicting evidence, it is little wonder that the music industry is reacting to the illegal music sharing phenomena in a rather haphazard way. And while a set of new approaches try desperately to converge the interest of record labels, artists and fans, there is still no one solution able to raise its head above the chaos.


Even though there are numerous cases in which illegal music downloads are definitively not causing any harm whatsoever to the industry, the bottom line is that when given the choice, most consumers (of just about anything) will always go for the cheapest option. Which means that the real danger here has nothing to do with financial impact, rather with the possibility that new artists might become jaded and disillusioned with the entire music scene as a whole, and simply decide that a recording career simply isn’t worth all the hassle.

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