The Seamier Side of Sharing

Music Industry Lawsuit | Free music. Free movies. Free software, games, and TV shows. These are temptations too great for many Penn students to resist. Like Mephistopheles enticing Faust, peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs such as LimeWire and Kazaa offer anyone with an Internet connection a seemingly endless supply of entertainment.

P2P program users can download, or save onto their hard drives, media files that other users have uploaded onto the network. “The summer before my freshman year, I couldn’t wait to move into my dorm,” recalls Jenny*, a junior economics major. “I was so eager to be able to download music, movies, and TV shows at lightning-fast speeds.”

But what she considers fun, the music industry calls theft. Last December, the Recording Industry Association of America filed “John Doe” copyright-infringement lawsuits against 754 alleged P2P users, including two Penn students.

“With legal online retailers still forced to compete against illegal free networks, the playing field remains decidedly unbalanced,” RIAA president Cary Sherman stated in a press release. “That’s why continued enforcement against individuals stealing and distributing music illegally is essential, as is holding accountable the businesses that intentionally promote and profit from this theft.”

The names of the two Penn students accused of illegally uploading music files onto file-sharing networks have not been released. “In these particular cases, University records weren’t sufficient to identify the individual users,” explains Phyllis Holtzman, a University spokeswoman. “However, students should be aware that the University may have records that would identify other users and will comply with any lawful subpoena received in the future.”

Despite the RIAA’s legal efforts, many students at Penn continue to share files on the Internet, albeit more cautiously. Noah, a Wharton junior, uses BitTorrent and had also used Kazaa and eMule. “I’d say I personally downloaded 300 or so songs, maybe a hundred movies, and 30 to 40 programs,” he says. “I have more than a thousand [songs] that someone else downloaded and gave to me.” The specter of the RIAA, however, caused Noah to begin using a program that he heard is legal because it pays royalties.

Exactly what is illegal—and prosecutable—and what is not remains a murky point among students. The RIAA’s website lists uploading of copyrighted sound recordings onto P2P programs—commonly known as “sharing”—as an example of online piracy. The website does not mention downloading in its outline of copyright violations, however.

“Thousands of people have been sued for making files available, but no one has been sued for downloading,” notes Dr. Peter Fader, the Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor of Marketing at Wharton. “It’s a somewhat subtle semantic distinction, but the industry does a great job of twisting it around and scaring people with that kind of misinformation.”

Even ads posted in some of Penn’s college houses—claiming that “Mother was wrong” when she “taught you to share”—seem to blur the difference between uploading and downloading.

Sanctioned programs like iTunes and MSN music sell songs for 99 cents apiece, but they are not especially popular among Penn undergraduates. Students are irked by restrictions of these programs. But prices remain the chief deterrent.

“Why would I spend a dollar on a song from iTunes when I could get it for free from LimeWire?” asks Marisa, a sophomore majoring in psychology. “I stopped downloading because my friend said someone had been [prosecuted] at MIT for only having 20 songs. I only had about 25 songs but that made me think.  Still, I didn’t think I was doing anything really wrong. It wasn’t like I was downloading thousands of songs.”

According to Fader, the RIAA is “missing a golden opportunity. Instead of pushing programs like iTunes, which are up against countless file-sharing services, and filing lawsuits, which create bad publicity, they should promote programs that stream music.”

Streaming music differs from downloading music in that no files are stored on the computer’s hard drive. Streaming programs such as Music Match, Yahoo Launch, and Rhapsody function like radios and play music continuously. Users have the option of creating playlists of their favorite songs if they purchase premium streaming services for inexpensive monthly fees. “The music industry should focus on getting people away from downloading altogether,” Fader says. “What they should be telling people is, ‘Try streaming instead. You’ll like it more. Downloading is so 2003.’”

Indeed, some Penn students have cut back on downloading because of the amount of time it requires. Dee, a systems engineering junior, downloaded about 5,000 files with Kazaa, Direct Connect, IRC, and BitTorrent, but he hasn’t used P2P programs in a while.

“Downloading can get addictive,” he says. “Sometimes you find yourself sitting in front of a computer for eight or 10 hours a day, just looking for more to download. It’s a big waste of time.”

The downloading habits of Penn students have also been the subject of research. Dr. Joel Waldfogel, professor of business and public policy, and Dr. Rafael Robb, professor of economics, analyzed the rates of music downloading and CD-buying of students at Penn and other universities to determine the validity of the RIAA’s claim that file-sharing hurts CD sales.

“A few years ago, there was no evidence that downloading [had] hurt the industry,” Waldfogel says. “Our sample is not representative of the whole country or the whole world, but we have found a pattern that seems to show that people who download more tend to purchase less.” Their survey indicates that for every 10 music downloads, there is a potential loss of one to two album sales. “A lot of people who used to think that downloading wasn’t harmful to revenue have changed their minds.

“Still, the gain to consumers is much bigger than the loss to the industry,” he says. “In this sample of Penn students, we found that downloading benefited them about $75 per capita but it cost losses of expenditure of $25.”

According to Waldfogel, students in the study mostly downloaded music or movies they did not consider worth buying; when this happens, no loss to the industry occurs.

Daniel, a senior English major, uses BitTorrent to download songs, movies, and episodes of Smallville, a television series about the early years of Superman on the WB network. “I mainly use [BitTorrent] to get things I don’t want to pay for. If there’s a movie I don’t feel I should pay to see, I’ll download it. But if I like an artist, I’ll buy their album even if I only like one or two of the songs on it.” Anxiety about the RIAA lawsuits led Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly (UA) to propose a campus file-sharing network. The UA hopes to use the network to provide students with a legal alternative for accessing music databases. Under this proposal, Penn would purchase a subscription service to programs like Napster, Rhapsody, Ruckus, or Cdigix that would allow students to stream unlimited music on their computers. Jason Karsh, a UA member spearheading this initiative, has been working with the University to determine if and how a campus file-sharing network could be established.

For students to use a network, they must become more aware of what’s wrong with illegal file-sharing in the first-place, Karsh says.

“People still do not understand that by partaking in illegal downloading, they are not just keeping multi-millionaire artists from a few dollars, they are hurting the music industry, which affects employees of the recording studios and record labels,” he says. “By paying two to five dollars a month, you would be able to support the industry. Many people are willing to pay 10 dollars for a movie that may very well be bad, so why wouldn’t they pay a couple of bucks a month for unlimited streaming music?”

(*With the exception of Jason Karsh, students’ names have been changed at their request.) —Chelsea Tanimura C’06


©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05


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