Yes, music downloading is non-rivalrous

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Today's Louisville Kentucky Courier Journal has an article on how the RIAA is suing a bunch of local old people for downloading music. As usual, the reporting isn't very good:
It's not OK with recording companies, who lose money with each illegal download and have filed more than 18,200 civil suits since September 2003.

Look, I know this is the recording industry party line, but it's simply not true. If I download a song that I never had any intention of buying, it doesn't cost the recording company anything. A better reporter might have pointed this out.

There's also an oh-so-helpful sidebar on what's legal and what's not:

What are examples of violating copyright law?
  • Sharing music files on the Internet, via peer-to-peer networks.
  • Burning copies of a CD for friends.
  • Transferring a music file through an instant messaging service.
  • Lending a friend a CD so he or she can copy it.

This too, is from the RIAA playbook, but it's misleading at best. First, it's clearly not illegal for you to share music you yourself made or that is freely available using any of these methods. There's lots of such music about. Second, it's not at all clear that burning a copy of a CD for a friend—much less letting them borrow your CD to copy—is a copyright infringement. The Audio Home Recording Act specifically exempts non-commercial copying. These protections have been subsatantially modified by the NET Act, but as I understand the situation, it's not at all a slam dunk that private copying in small quantities is a violation.

4 Comments

I disagree. If you download a song you have no intention to listen to, then I don't lose money. That would have to be an accidental download, or some other equivalent of buying the wrong CD and returning it, still shrink-wrapped, to the store.

If the mere lack of intent to buy were to make downloading copies of proprietary music legal or acceptable, then surely no one would ever develop an intent to buy in the first place. At best, a few people might intend to buy the album art, or to donate money to the band (or even to the label... OK, probably not).

That said, I think suing grandmothers is one of many bad decisions that the RIAA and its members make. But I've never heard a good explanation of why music is illegally copied so often compared to other digitizable intellectual property, such as books.

The point is not that illegal downloads, on the whole, don't cause the recording companies to lose money. It's quite possible that they do (though some studies suggest that the effects of file sharing are neutral or even positive, by encouraging viral marketing.)

The point is that the assertion that each time someone downloads a song, you lose the market value of that song, is blatantly false. Since downloading is cheaper than buying music, it follows that those who download music will download many more songs than they would buy. If a teenager downloads several thousand songs, it's not the case that the record companies lost several grand — there's no way he would have paid that much had filesharing not existed.

I didn't say that the music companies don't lose money ever due to downloading, merely that, as Nikita says, they don't lose money "each time someone downloads a song".

As for why music is copied so often, I suspect it's that it survives the transfer to digital form so well. Books, by contrast, are very hard to read on the screen and printouts are a poor substitute for bound books.

In Canada, copying music for personal use is explicitly legal. So lending a CD to a friend who copies it is fine. On the other hand, it's probably not legal to make a copy yourself and give the copy to a friend.

When the Canadian Recording Industry Association tried to force ISPs to give up names of file sharers, a federal judge said that the 'private copying' regime was probably legal (that wasn't the main basis for denying CRIA's request, though).

Supposedly, the levy we pay for all blank media compensates artists for the legal practice of private copying. Most people are very skeptical of any of that money actually finding its way to artists, though.

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