Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

The New York Times Upfront asked me to contribute a short piece to a point/counterpoint they were having on download. (I would defend downloading, of course.) I thought I managed to write a pretty good piece, especially for its size and audience, in a couple days. But then I found out my piece was cut because the Times had decided not to tell kids to break the law. So, from the graveyard, here it is.

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem.

Music companies blame a fifteen percent drop in sales since 2000 on downloading. But over the same period, there was a recession, a price hike, a 25% cut in new releases, and a lack of popular new artists. Factoring all that in, maybe downloading increases sales. And 90% of the catalog of the major labels isn’t for sale anymore. The Internet is the only way to hear this music.

Even if downloading did hurt sales, that doesn’t make it unethical. Libraries and video stores (neither of which pay per rental) hurt sales too. Is it unethical to use them?

Downloading may be illegal. But 60 million people used Napster and only 50 million voted for Bush or Gore. We live in a democracy. If the people want to share files then the law should be changed to let them.

And there’s a fair way to change it. A Harvard professor found that a $60/yr. charge for broadband users would make up for all lost revenues. The government would give it to the affected artists and, in return, make downloading legal, sparking easier-to-use systems and more shared music. The artists get more money and you get more music. What’s unethical about that?

Footnotes and lots of comments on Aaron's site.


First, business models protected by law are monopolies because they stifle competition.

Second, taxation of broadband is unfair since there are large numbers of users that do not download music. It also excuses many users who are downloading music but are on dial-up.

This is different than taxation of blank media, since clearly you're buying the media to record music, whereas you may (and in fact many do) buy broadband access for other purposes than downloading music.

Third, people love to talk about "the music companies" as if we know who they are and what their market share is. How is anyone going to decide how to divvy up the tax money collected? How are we going to arbitrate claims from fly-by-night opportunistic companies formed only for the purpose of grabbing a share of the pie?

For these reasons, and probably for other reasons, this taxation proposal is a non-starter.


This reminded me and Chris Phoneix's's extension to two Jane Jacobs Moral Syndromes, ie, Commerical vs Guardian.

Chris proposed an "Information" Moral Syndromes, where the benefit is unlimited sum vs a zero-sum game.

Blank media is also widely used for things other than copying music: data backup, GPL software copies, even storing personal photos and videos. Putting a tax on it is just as fair/unfair as a levy on broadband access.

Besides, only about 10% of the cost of a CD goes to the music author. The rest pays a huge promotion and distribution industry that the net is making more and more redundant each day.

Lets evolve and get rid of them!

We in Finland have this tax on blank media and it is driving the people crazy here. There is no way in avoiding it, if you are a consumer buying a blank cd from a store to burn your photos on for example.

Some of the taxes are: 0.25€ / CDR (computer use, for audio use it would be 0,50€/disc), Data DVD-R 0,92€ / disc. There is also a tax on mp3 recorders 0,50€ per minute, but at the most 25,23€ per device. (Translated from Teosto Finland)

There is a petition going around to get MPs aware of the ridiculous situation this law has put us in. It was implemented in 1984.

Being an amateur photographer I disapprove of this as I pay for artists when I burn my photos on CDRs.

There's a simple way to solve this. Use DRM technology and make actual users pay :-)

The one problem with the library analogy is that at least the author receives the royalty on the sale of the first book; although I agree that library patrons are not paying the royalties unless you count it indirectly through tax support of the institution. While it's a nice concept to argue and to compare, I find the idea of downloading music at least bothersome because the artist does not receive any royalties on their intellectual rights. Perhaps it's because as a writer I'm a bit more conscious of the issues and worry where it all may lead.

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem.

> Yes there is. Downloading is definitely considered as stealing even though it is not as tangible as like you said an album from a record store. As a matter of fact, you are stealing other people's money. Downloading a song from the internet without the artists permission means that
you take something from someone who has invested money in it (the production,..) and wants to gain profit by providing that good for sale. You need to weigh your own cost and benefit scheme as well. Why do we buy an album, song, a DVD etc.? The reason is that we if our benefit outweighs the cost of good we gain from it then we find it worth buying the product. As soon as we see downloading as an option for 'obtaining' a certain product, like a song, DVD from the internet, this benfit-cost scheme does not apply anymore because it is of a psychological fact that people are tempted with ease to gain a product just by downloading it,.. the manufactuer/producer/artist whoever, won't get renumerated by such an unethical action.