To download or not to download?

I read with great interest the opinion article Music: To pay or not to pay? by William McAuliffe where it is claimed that we should not download music illegally off the internet. McAuliffe even claims to be against making mix tapes for his friends. Two arguments are given. One is that to do so is illegal, and we should follow laws. The second defends the anti-copyright law, thus even if making mix-tapes were legal, to do so is wrong and we should therefore not do it.

As to the first, I know of no one who in serious discussion does not admit that they break laws that they do not believe in. If you have ever consumed marijuana, used a fake ID or engaged in certain sexual acts in the state of Alabama, then we agree that we often do not honor laws that we think unjust. If an excellent case can be made to change these laws then, since life is short, once we decide a law is unjust we do not follow it (if we can get away with it). Note I have used only flippant examples, rather than serious ones, where in fact ‘breaking’ the law would perhaps be morally required.

Nonetheless it is true that the state has decided, with copyrights, to grant monopolies to companies that produce intellectual property and thus make it illegal to copy or reproduce their products. But are these laws justified? If so, it is not for the reason McAuliffe mentions. In his analogy of a coffee shop he simply confuses intellectual property and real property. If I have a $5 cup of coffee, and you consume it, then I cannot. If I have Abbey Road on a $15 CD, then I can burn you a copy for almost nothing and we can both enjoy.

In fact, the only reasonable defense of such laws (used since the medieval guild system) is that it is the only way to provide incentives for production of creative and innovative artistic work. However, this position is simply untenable these days when production (burning CD’s) costs almost nothing, and surely musicians create and innovate for the love of it, don’t they? Read Dean Baker’s ideas for a publicly funded voucher system (as opposed to copyrights) to foster innovation and compensate people for creative work. In the meantime, download away. And make me a mix-tape.

Adam Bird-Ridnell is a junior majoring in history and philosophy. He may be contacted at