Is Piracy Moral?

As a musician, I struggle greatly with the question of the piracy of intellectual property. Is it better to make music free, so that it can spread more? Or does charging say to an audience, “Hey, I’m a real artist here. I worked hard. You should have to pay for that work”? I’m not sure. However, I’d say piracy should flatter artists: people want to share their music with their friends.

Those artists who are opposed to, or even offended by, their fans sharing their music with others, I think, miss the point entirely, and are usually those that have the most money. I make this last assumption because they have the power and influence to stand up against something like piracy and bring the issue in to the public sphere. At any rate, if an artist’s primary concern is making money rather than sharing his or her expression with an interested audience, I say they are in it for the wrong reason. Creation is a gift to society, not a product. That is my view and the view of most artists I know.

So then there is the question of wealth. Piracy is naturally more common among those who do not have means, and more legitimate (in the legal sense, not like “Yeah, bro, it was totally legit”) ways of acquiring music are most often pursued by those with means. Great art, on the other hand, usually comes from pain, suffering, want, longing, “the struggle.” And so I say, in a general sense, that great art arises out of poverty, be it financial poverty or, just as often, emotional poverty. The impoverished audience is, therefore, most closely connected to the typical artist, and what follows that art is, in some sense, beyond monetary worth.

I think hip-hop is a microcosm of this issue. Hip-hop originated in the most impoverished, ignored, and, essentially repressed, urban areas in this country. It would be extremely hypocritical for a hip-hop artist who exploited his or her poverty to then demand that other poor folk, most likely his or her greatest audience (since the impoverished can best relate to poverty-inspired music), pay to relate to these artists. That is a really ridiculous scenario, but I’ll admit that it is one that, until someone finds evidence to support it, will remain simply hypothetical.

Moreover, free sharing, such as on blogs and the like, is often the best way to gain exposure. Take the bands Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Dr. Dog – as far as I know, they got big on the internet, a realm defined by freedom, where, it should follow, sharing is mostly free. It is true that musicians have to try hard to make a living and that if all music were free, their pocketbooks might suffer. However, it is a well known fact that since the onset of the predominance of digital music and the free sharing that followed, musicians no longer make their money from record sales. (This has been true for quite some time even before the age of digital music sharing dawned.) It is a well known fact that musicians these days earn their money from licensing and live performances, particularly from playing festivals, which are especially lucrative.

What I have given here is a superficial look at the basic implications of piracy of intellectual property. This may not address the moral issue as well as you might have expected when reading the title of this piece. But, if I may get meta here for a minute, I very strongly subscribe to the notion that morals are often the way they are because they are practical. Things are moral because they work. So does piracy work? Certainly it works for consumers. Certainly it does not work for record companies and distributors. But in the end, the real question should be “Does piracy work for artists?” And after all this rambling, I’m not sure a solid conclusion has been reached.

But such is the nature of complex questions. As Dr. Dog, one of the great beneficiaries of piracy, puts it on the opening track of their debut album, “The world may never know.”

Martin Bemberg