Illegal downloads: Frugality or moral bankruptcy?

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Last April saw the one billionth legal song download in the UK. That sounds like an awful lot, but per capita works out at about 16 songs. Alongside this legitimate industry, however, illegal downloads have emerged as an increasingly contentious phenomena with the growth of the World Wide Web. Once upon a time, many teens used LimeWire to source the latest music, but a plethora of other file-sharing websites and services have now emerged which mean a range of multimedia is available, for free, at the click of a button. Whilst there are undoubtedly arguments in favour of being able to freely expand one’s vast iTunes collection, on the flipside, it is understandable why many are vehemently opposed to the idea.

Although the illegal download culture covers a wide spectrum, services such as Pirate Bay are perhaps the one most students can relate to. In March 2013, Ofcom revealed that, over 12 months, 199 million songs were illegally obtained within the UK. Despite the fact that this reflected a drop of over 100 million on the prior 12 month period, the 199m figure remained higher than the number of singles purchased lawfully over the entire year. Although optimists within the music industry suggest it is “on the road to recovery”, helped by the advent of streaming services such as Spotify, illegal downloads evidently remain an ongoing issue.

For the vast proportion of students, isoHunt and similar websites have provided an easily accessible database of the latest tracks, as well as old classics, at no cost for a number of years. Let’s face it, most people would rather spend nothing on Bastille’s newest single and have the money for some Heinz Baked Beans than having to buy Sainsbury’s Basics throughout the last weeks of term, but at what point does this apparent frugality become too much? Although a number of online outlets retail the latest music, Apple’s iTunes Store is undoubtedly the most popular, boasting a catalogue containing over 37 million tracks. Even the highest-priced iTunes tracks would hit the tightest student budget only slightly but, of course, many are not only in the hunt for one song when they delve in to the murky waters of illegal downloads.

Despite the obvious moral implications, because piracy amounts to theft, the reasoning behind sourcing tracks for free is understandable. Other downloaders operate on the mantra of “try before you buy”, arguing that illegal downloads contribute towards the discovery process. When some hear of an up-and-coming band from the far-flung reaches of Norfolk for example, they will peruse online services and download what they can from the emerging group’s back catalogue. If they like it, they will go on to buy it, but for every “try before you buy-er” there will undoubtedly be more who don’t follow up the initial acquisition with a legitimate purchase.

Illegal downloads do not always relate to current stars or up-and-coming talents, with many seeking to source the works of established groups and artists. In a roundabout way, the wealth of music megastars are seen as an excuse to illicitly acquire their releases. Brooklyn-born rapper Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé are worth an estimated $850 million, whilst each member of the unfathomably popular One Direction earned a cool £12 million in 2013. None of them are likely to miss the cut of the 99p iTunes receives for one of their singles, though cumulatively this obviously mounts into huge lost earnings. Away from the financial aspects of illegal downloads, one prominent question comes to the fore. If you are happy enough to call yourself a fan of an artist, shouldn’t you be happy enough to pay for their music? Buying music can act as the catalyst for performers to continue their output which in turn improves the lives of their fans. For this reason alone, surely it makes sense for consumers to support their favourite artists by buying their music?

Perhaps, the old adage that many students grew up with at the start of videotapes in the 1990s is the best way to cap the discussion on illegal downloads. “You wouldn’t steal a car” was beamed across our screens before Toy Story or The Lion King started, though we were too young to really understand the thinking behind it. Now though, despite perhaps being slightly over exaggerated, the meaning can be extrapolated to cover the illegal downloads market which wide swathes of society so willingly engage in.

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