In the early 2000s, whenever I visited my relatives and had a peek at their computer, there is always one common icon – the original BitTorrent client – and half the time it was running and downloading music. Recently though, we hear some retailers of music proclaiming that consumers had bought 16 billion songs, and a record number of singles are sold every year. What has happened to music piracy?
Here’s a background of music piracy. Music piracy was around ever since the days of the tape recorders. However, it was not a problem then as making duplicates of a piece of music is a time-consuming process, requiring the same amount of time as listening to the record itself. All this changed with the advant of the computer. Users could make duplicates of their discs at a very high speed. Furthermore, a popular file format known as MP3 which allowed for highly compressed files which were “indistinguishable to the original” emerged. The late 1990s saw the rise of peer-to-peer networks like Napster. These networks allowed users to share their MP3 files easily and allowed other users to download them at no cost. All these further ate into the record label companies’ profits. However it seems like the event which made the most impact on the music industry recenty is the invention of the iPod. Although it was not the first MP3 player on the market, it was the one which revolutionised the way we would listen to music. A small device which could easily fit into your pocket could hold up to 1,000 songs, it was nothing that devices of that time could offer. However with this came many new problems. Consumers need to rip their own CDs in order to listen to them inside these devices. This proved to be quite a hassle for some consumers who then turned to downloading music illegally. During the period of the early MP3 players, there was no means that consumers could purchase music online legally. This further caused a decline in album sales. Meanwhile, consumers continued to download music illegally thru Napster, BitTorrent and others.
However all these started to change when Apple finally opened their iTunes online music store in 2003. It boasted a collection of 200,000 songs (not albums) and charged a reasonable price of $0.99 USD. It proved a hit amongst consumers, who bought more than 1,000,000 tracks in the first 5 days of the store’s launch. However, piracy was still rampant due to the fact that the iTunes store was only available in certain countries.
As time progressed, the sales of singles have boomed (at least 117m in 2009), Apple sold its 10 billionth song, the number of MP3 players have boomed (Apple sold 275 million iPods through 2010), there are more than 1 legal means to get music online and the number of music pirates have fallen. Why is this so?
A reason why this is so is the fact that legal music is now so much easier to obtain at a reasonable cost. Consumers did not need to buy a whole album. This improved convenience allows users to purchase songs selectively. Furthermore, many of these online stores allow users to purchase songs without Digital Rights Management built in. Therefore, users are not locked to a single device to listen to their music.
In 2011, Apple will roll out a new service called iTunes Match, where users can pay an annual US$25 subscription fee for this service. This service would compare the music available in a user’s iTunes library with those available on the iTunes store. If a match is found, that song would be made available for legal downloading via iTunes. They would even “upgrade” the files if the files on a user’s library are not as high quality as the ones provided. All music which are in a user’s library are applicable for this service, even those which they ripped themselves, or have obtained from dubious sources.
This move actually allows users to legitimize their entire music library!
So, how ethical is this move?
The few affected parties are the consumers, the retailer (Apple in this case), other record label companies and the artists.
A consumer has to pay for this service, and the retailer have struck deals with the other record labels before providing this service. By striking deals with those record labels, the artists would get their share of the profits (no, I would not discuss if the profit sharing is fair). Apple, being the provider of the service, also benefits from this service as they are collecting subscription fees from users, while users stand to benefit from this move as they would be able to access their music from a computer with iTunes or from a compatible product. Thus, if we analyse this with respect to the Utilitarianism theory, all parties stand to benefit from this service, so it is ethical.
However this would not solve all the problems as only a few are able to access these services. Also, there would always be those who have access to these services but choose not to subscribe to them.
Therefore back to the question is music piracy dead? I feel that the problem of music piracy has been greatly reduced, due to the new methods of obtaining music legally, but music piracy would never be totally stopped due to the limitations mentioned.