When I was 6 I stole a fuzzy pen from Party City. Without a disposable income I was left to rely on my mother, who, when asked, said I could not buy the pen. Bypassing the law, I took the pink pen, ready to embark on a life of crime.
Before we left the parking lot my mom realized what I had done (it was my first heist, what can I say?) and I had to go in, give the pen back and apologize. There I was: a tiny, budding kleptomaniac.
It could’ve stopped there. I could’ve had my one-day crime spree and chosen a quiet life in the country. But I discovered file-sharing websites. And the ruffian was reborn.
It all started innocently enough, with CDs shared among middle school friends and downloaded onto everyone’s desktops. Alas the CDs weren’t enough, they couldn’t satisfy my need for music (aka my need to impress other people with how much alternative music I knew.) Babysitting money and hostessing couldn’t pay the bills, so I turned to the internet and the formidable, omnipresent file-sharing websites.
I downloaded a lot of music. I downloaded individual songs, full albums, even audio books (what? never heard of a nerdy criminal?). That being said, I don’t know that my downloading was unusual. Most of my friends did it, and it was so spread out over time that I’m sure I would be shocked if I heard how much I’ve actually downloaded.
Since the rise of Spotify and Pandora, I’ve put the life of crime behind me. But our recent discussions about the future of music and how music is disseminated has made me wonder about this decade or so, in which illegal sharing dominated the music industry.
Really I’m wondering why I did it. I consider my moral compass fairly straight (sun rises in the north, sets in the south, etc), so why did I steal from people? What I’ve got is this: it’s a cost-benefit analysis in which the benefit is clear (free music) and the costs are vague and misunderstood.
The argument I had as a teenager was that I was downloading music from artists who didn’t need the money, and prosecuting downloaders was so resource-training for authorities that being fined, or even noticed, would be nearly impossible.
The first part of that argument is easy to shoot down – not all the money from music sales goes to rich people, artists work hard to create their music and deserve compensation, and most importantly – capitalism.
I’m not sure about the second part of the argument because I have no idea how illegal file-sharing is monitored or prosecuted. Is it a felony? Is there a statute of limitations? How do they find you? Could you go to jail? Does it matter how much you download? Do authorities know who offenders are but just choose not to prosecute? What happens when recording companies get involved and take matters into their own hands? Will they kill me? I have a lot of questions and no answers. And that’s a problem because when we can’t see the consequences, we assume there are none.
But I still want that pen.