Recently, David Lowery, of Cracker fame, posted an open letter to Emily White, a college student and NPR intern who has articulated some of the ethical complexities of free music downloading that she and many of her friends participate in. There are a lot of moving parts here that don’t reduce neatly into a paragraph or two, but one of Lowery’s central points is that White and her friends (and millions of others) are participating in something fundamentally unethical. Lowery treads some familiar territory (the looting analogy) but expands a bit to implicate other corporations.
What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it. And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?
But it’s worse than that. It turns out that Verizon, AT&T, Charter etc etc are charging a toll to get into this neighborhood to get the free stuff. Further, companies like Google are selling maps (search results) that tell you where the stuff is that you want to loot. Companies like Megavideo are charging for a high speed looting service (premium accounts for faster downloads). Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted. Further, in order to loot you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsumg tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get “free” music. (Like most claimed “disruptive innovations”it turns out expensive subsidies exist elsewhere.) Companies are actually making money from this looting activity. These companies only make money if you change your principles and morality! And none of that money goes to the artists!
It’s hard to believe that Lowery has really listened to White or that Lowery’s impassioned writing will convict many free downloaders to change their ways. And there are a lot of readers of this blog who have written extensively on the subject, some on the side of Lowery and others squarely against him. Let’s use our pop music heads to determine whether anything going on here is new to the ongoing file sharing discourse and to analyze some of the finer points of White and Lowery.