I ended last month’s column Intellectual Property Part 1 with the (I hope) provoking and suspenseful segue: Why indeed pick on poor Joel — the pros and cons of file “sharing.”
To briefly review, I referenced the article in the the May 22 Press-Republican “Court won’t reduce student’s $675,000 music download fine” about the student, Joel Tenenbaum, who was busted for illegally downloading 30 songs. I also briefly discussed the concept of ownership, citing the differing philosophies of Plato and Aristotle: Plato believed that private property served to divide, not unite humanity, while Aristotle thought private ownership of any property was only the fair outcome and reward of an individual’s labor. But these are both Western viewpoints.
There also exists a completely different Eastern view: “Brahmanist philosophy called Vedanta believes that ownership arises due to the sense of being separated from the rest of the universe. When one suffers under the illusion that one is separate from the rest of the universe, ownership is one of the ways one might attempt to reconnect with ‘other’ objects. Vedanta believes that ownership is an illusion which persists as long as the belief in separation from the universe persists. When one understands the fundamental reality that there is only one entity called the universe, one is freed of the illusion of ownership.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ownership) While this more oceanic view certainly disposes of the ownership issue it is, unfortunatelty, not a useful solution to Joel’s dilemma in a society of constitutional capitalism.
In order to examine this issue, we first need a more precise definition of “file sharing,” and fortunately Wikipedia is ready to help: “File sharing is the practice of distributing or providing access to digitally stored information, such as computer programs, multimedia (audio, images and video), documents or electronic books. It may be implemented through a variety of ways. Common methods of storage, transmission and dispersion include manual sharing utilizing removable media, centralized servers on computer networks, World Wide Web-based hyperlinked documents, and the use of distributed peer-to-peer networking. I don’t want to get into the technical details of what a “centralized server” or a “Peer to Peer” (often denoted as P2P — cute, huh?) network is, but the Wikipedia site is an excellent source if you have a computer connected to the Web.
A fairly comprehensive anecdotal and annotated investigation of the pros and cons of file sharing with the focus on music files by Keith Jenci can be found at www.mredkj.com/other/sharing.html. On the pro side, he lists “MP3s (MP3 is a computer format for an audio file) are not a physical thing, so no actual value is lost by ‘stealing’ a song,” to “many artists support file sharing (it increases sales).” On the con side, “music is worth the money, and many CDs are reasonably priced” to “struggling artists are losing out.”
A more structured and insightful discussion of the issue is by Michael J. Quinn in his book “Ethics for the Information Age.” Quinn and many others view music as “intellectual property” and, as such, is afforded the legal protections that all property gets. He defines intellectual property as “Any unique product of the human intellect that has commercial value. Examples of intellectual property are books, music, movies, plays, paintings, chemical formulas and computer software.” An example of the conflict between property rights and freedom of expression is called “music piracy” by the recording industry and is called “file sharing” by millions of Internet users.
If I own a music file on my computer, why can’t I share it with a friend? “Because it is intellectual property covered by copyright law and sharing it is theft” is the response of the recording industry. As the speed and capacity of the Internet expands, this problem has only grown worse.
But what about poor Joel? Well, he did break the law, and I think some punishment is in order here — but not a fine of almost $1 million — perhaps a community service speaking to students would be more appropriate and more useful. If you want to help him, try this link: http://joelfightsback.com, or not.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at email@example.com.