Music piracy is on the decline in recent years. At the high point near the close of 2007, 16% of internet users relied on a P2P service to download music. But by the end of 2010, that figure had fallen to 9% just after LimeWire, probably the most popular P2P service at the time, was forced stop operating by a court injunction. This decline, which many suggestwas largely a result of LimeWire’s cessation, looks at first glance like a big win for copyright, and it is. However, more curious is exactly why it had such an impact, as internet-goers are far from unable to pirate music without LimeWire. LimeWire was, in addition to a direct P2P filesharing network, a torrent client, which people use to quickly download files—often music files—from other users around the world who are “seeding” them (sharing them, making them available for download). Other torrent clients include (but are not at all limited to): uTorrent, BitTorrent, BitComet, Deluge, FrostWire, Vuze, and Transmission. Anyone with even an ounce of determination can still illegally download music for free.
Just as the drop in overall illegal P2P downloading was unlikely a result of incapacitation, it is improbable that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) managed to significantly deter would-be and ex-pirates through lawsuits against individuals. Between 2006 and 2008, the RIAA spent over $64 million on lawsuits that earned $1.4 million in total settlements. And they went after only a small fraction of violators. The scope of the problem is too vast to attack on an individual level, and few pirates quake in their boot and peg-leg at the thought of the RIAA.
So why did so many people stop infringing copyright when LimeWire disappeared? Perhaps a more reasonable explanation than incapacitation or RIAA crackdowns is that the shake-up caused people to reevaluate their most convenient listening option. LimeWire’s decline provided enough illegal downloading inertia for some users to realize that music was far more freely and legally available than it had been when they started using LimeWire. One could find almost any music video on YouTube, listen to any artist on Pandora or Last.fm, and track down any song through a subscription service like Rhapsody or the new Napster, or even through the Zune community (in theory—nobody actually has a Zune). For about a dollar a song, they could scour the vast library of iTunes, and download almost any song to well-organized and easily manipulable libraries and playlists. Legal access to music had become far more convenient since the days of buying CDs and waiting up to fifteen minutes for them to import into your library. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these champions of convenience.
Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has grown to serve over 3 billion videos each day, about 15% of which it monetizes through advertisements. It carries popular music videos, such as those legally posted by Vevo, and is a popular destination for on-demand music streaming.
For those willing and able to afford it, iTunes is an intuitive and easy-to-use organization and storage option for music. Apple is also planning iTunes Match, which is currently in beta testing. ITunes Match, they hope, will monetize previously pirated music: for around $25 per year, iTunes will take all of your music (up to 25,000 songs), sync it with Apple’s higher quality versions, and keep it in the cloud for you. Stop paying the $25 each year, and your access to the music in the cloud disappears. However, anything you downloaded and store locally you get to keep.
Pandora is a music streaming and recommendation service that allows users to pick an artist or a song and then plays a variety of music that the user is likely to enjoy based on its similarity to the original choice. Each of Pandora’s 100 million users can give “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to each song, which Pandora factors into future predictions. Especially useful for discovering new tracks, Pandora is like YouTube in that it is most suitable for one-time listening, rather than for building a reusable and well-organized library.
With around 40 million users, Last.fm is another recommendation service known for its ability to work synergistically with other software. For example, it can extract play count data whenever an iPod is plugged in and use it to improve it’s recommendations. It is also integrated with the next and (I think) most exciting marker of how listening to music is changing, Spotify.
Although it had no bearing on the piracy decline in 2010—it’s only two months old in the United States—Spotify, which was founded by the former CEO of uTorrent, Daniel Ek, might just be the service that gets people to really abandon torrenting for more “legitimate” music service. First off, it can automatically sync with a computer’s iTunes library, eliminating the hassle of transferring a whole library. It lets users access any song in its catalogue of over 15 million songs, form playlists, and integrate track plays into Last.fm, all for free. For $5 a month, ads disappear, and for $10, Spotify will sync all of one’s devices, allow for mobile use, and let users download songs to play while they are offline. Of the service’s 10 million users, approximately 1 million are paid users. When my free trial expires that figure of paid users is certainly going to increment.
Part of the magic of services like Spotify rests in their ability to take advantage of the fact that music no longer needs to exist as a physical entity in the sense that CDs and cassette tapes did.
Therefore, it is less important to own a physical copy of an album or a single, and much more feasible and convenient to settle for just having access to any song at any time, via the cloud. In effect, they are exactly the same thing from an internet-equipped user’s standpoint, except she doesn’t have to devote space on her own hard drive to keeping all the files. Optimists will reason that we pay subscription fees to talk on the phone, watch television, and surf the web; it’s only a matter of time before we do the same for device-independent access to 15 million plus songs.
Although it may satisfy a desire for self-righteousness to parade around promoting strict copyright penalties and efforts to shutdown websites that enable or promote copyright infringement, such an approach, for two reasons, is futile as the only strategy. Firstly, the internet is a highly globalized and free environment; copyright law is state-specific. Sites like The Pirate Bay can simply move camp to the Seychelles, and skirt U.S. authorities in the process. Secondly, enablement and promotion of copyright infringement are difficult offenses to define. Did I just infringe on EMI and Sony’s copyrights by providing an external link to The Pirate Bay, which can provide you with torrents of copyrighted works? Does Google infringe on copyright when I search “Rapidshare new Eminem song download.” In both cases, the answer is probably “no,” but the larger and more general point that these questions give rise to is that contributory and vicarious liability judgments are very difficult to make.
To wrap up, it is highly unlikely that illegal music downloads can be prevented completely without significant violations of privacy and freedom. The bottom line is that the illegality of music piracy is not enough to deter people alone, and it is too costly to police on an individual level. Instead of trying (and perhaps achieving similar results to other idealistic, non-solution-oriented ventures like abstinence-only sex education and the original “war on drugs“) let’s continue to create legal alternatives that are more convenient than pirating. And let’s nudge users toward checking them out as a piracy alternative by working to shut down specific mass violators like LimeWire. If it works, hopefully we’ll be looking at a world where everyone shells out $10 each month—$10 that far exceeds the opportunity cost of taking the time to assemble a comprehensive library of pirated songs—and in return receives a stocked and personalized library on all of her devices. Who’s down?