Steal Away


This fall, governments across the globe have been cracking down even further on websites that illegally distribute music, movies and other files for download. In Sweden, the creators of The Pirate Bay bittorrent sharing site have been sentenced to prison terms and, last week, a number of popular American music blogs (including OnSmash.com and . . . ) were shut down. Last week, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, launched Operation in Our Sites, an effort to take down films and television shows that are not cleared for online sharing/viewing.

So, while those of us who have used these sites to download music and movies for the free may be feeling kind of salty right now . . . do we have a right to complain? At the end of the day, no matter the number of years the music industry over-charged us for CDs, no matter how much the quality of contemporary music may have declined . . . we’ve been stealing. Me and you and, more than likely, your mama and your cousin, too.

I got my first taste of downloading in 1999 via Napster, and for the duration of my high-school career, I managed to have every Mos Def track, every New Jack Swing throwback and everything D’Angelo so much as breathed on. I was known amongst friends and family for making these dope mix-CDs as gifts. In fact, when Crackhead Steve downstairs stole my home computer (we knew it was Crackhead Steve because he was a computer wizard and not a single other thing was stolen from the house), my mother was even able to cite my extensive online music library as part of the insurance claim. To be fair, I was still an avid purchaser of music. I copped both “New Release Tuesday” albums, and used CDs from my favorite record stores. My attitude then was that if I downloaded your new album for free, I wouldn’t have purchased it or been able to purchase it in the first place.

As the years have gone on, I’ve become a bit more lax about supporting artists the way that I feel I should. While there is a select list of musicians from whom I typically will purchase a record, no matter what (Lupe, Jill, The Roots), there have definitely been some releases that a pre-Napster Jamilah would have just went on and bought. I’ve never downloaded a movie, but even my father has figured out how to go online and watch a new release. The piracy is everywhere.

I have mixed feelings about this whole thing. The same labels that have benefited from the promotion that blog sites have given them, are now snatching them up and preventing the independent site owners from eating. But, on the flip, what about the people (from the artists down to the studio custodial staff) who are suffering as a result of declining record sales?

We hate the labels, but not the artists. The film and television studios, on the other hand, we don’t seem to have so much to say about. While movie tickets have gotten pricey (about $12 a pop in major cities), it seems that downloading films has more to do with the fact that we can as opposed to making a statement about not paying to see them. While the entertainment industry is to blame at its highest levels for waiting far too long to work with the concept of music downloading, continuing to push the $18.99 CD and the $40 movie date, that doesn’t mean that a lot of innocent people haven’t suffered as a result.

Political statements aside, online file pirating IS stealing. Most of us who download albums for free would never walk out of a clothing store with a coat that we thought was overpriced or a pocketful of jewelry we just couldn’t reconcile paying for. So is it that we are willing to look past the moral ramifications of stealing only when it seems impossible to get caught? Since we don’t like “the industry,” we don’t have to pay for its products. While some of us are truly invested in a revolution of the music business in which artists eat via shows and music is free for the taking online, others are just getting it because they can and will NEVER support an artist in concert.

I’m not throwing other illegal downloaders under the bus; I’m caught between the wheels with you. I just want to know: why is coping the new Rihanna a week prior to its release okay, when we wouldn’t walk into Best Buy and walk out with the physical CD in our purse? Thoughts?

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