Legality and Fairness

Lately I’ve been putting together a compilation of 100 songs from my music library. It’s a wide ranging mix of sounds from around the world but mostly old favorite artists, though not necessarily their most popular songs.

It’s for myself, to play for visitors, as well as to give to others. It’s not a terribly important endeavor, but fun nonetheless, especially since I have close to 20,000 songs to choose from in my library.

Last summer I bought a portable hard drive so I could take the whole collection with me to the states for sharing and to add to my collection. For at least 10 years before I put together this computer based library, I had about a dozen CD’s to listen to; believe me, it gets old being stuck with the same few songs, especially here in Cambodia where radio options are extremely limited.

I know there are purists out there who can tell (or think they can tell) the difference between an MP3 music file and a regular CD music file, which is, in fact, ten times the size, but I can’t distinguish between the two. I‘ve also come across nostalgia buffs who think vinyl is the greatest and are quite happy to jump up every few minutes to turn the record over. For me, storing music on a computer is by far the simplest and easiest way to organize and listen, not to mention cheapest: my 20,000 songs cost me a big zero dollars.

Several people on my trip questioned me about the legality and fairness of not paying for all that music. Some of my collection was copied from legitimately purchased CD’s. That certainly is no different than selling or giving away book that you’ve purchased. You pay for the book once, what happens after that is at your discretion.

Most however, was originally downloaded without payment from the internet. There are different ways to look at that part. In the first case, somebody must’ve purchased that music before it got to the internet, so at least in theory it also should be possible to share it. Of course, it’s a lot different sharing music with millions of people than with a few friends.

The option here is not between having the music for free or paying for it, but having it for free or not having it at all. Frankly, of the 1700 or so albums in my collection, there are easily hundreds I’ve never listened to, even in part. The friend I picked up the bulk of my music from was really into African and other ethnic so I may have several CD’s by an artist neither you nor I have ever heard of.

Data storage is now so cheap it isn’t worth deleting that music unless I really need the space. Meanwhile, I may actually queue it up sometime, and maybe even tell others if I really like it. Music sharing has in effect spread those artists work far and wide. I am listening to music by artists I would never have known existed otherwise, but of course, they are not getting paid for their work and talent. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that artists only receive about 7% of the list price of a CD.)

This is a problem which I see can only be righted through live performance. That won’t work for artists like Hamza El Din or Oliver Mtukudzi but they’ve lost nothing by me having their music for free since I’d never pay for it anyway. For Bonnie Raitt or Taj Mahal, a different story, but hopefully, by me spreading their music around, some listeners will want to attend their concerts.

Meanwhile, the entire music thing has been democratized. It’s no longer only for those with pockets of spare cash. Would I spend $20,000 on tunes? Today, anyone who can afford an MP3 player or cheap computer has access to a vast store of music. Even if you feel committed to buying legit CD’s, you’re still better off converting them to MP3 format and playing them via computer. Think about rifling through thousands of CD’s to try to find the tunes you’re looking for? Trying to keep them all in some type of order? Keeping track on computer is far simpler.  

Besides, this Jack is never going back in his box. The industry has the technology to restrict free access to newly recorded music, but the quantity of music currently available to me is immense. I have friends with collections many times the size of mine.

Here in Cambodia, nearly all media and software is copied, and everything is two to three dollars. There may be CD stores in the 5-star hotels in town that sell legal editions, but everyplace else sells copies.

Same is true of books. Schools and universities routinely sell copied textbooks; though they sometimes offer legitimate editions to their students, for three or four times the cost. Most bookstores sell as many photocopied books, which they commission themselves, as original ones.

I took advantage of the ease of copying books myself. I had photocopies of my novel Y3K photocopied for sale here in Cambodia. In this case it was totally legit since I self-published and my contract said reproduction only requires the approval of the author.. so I gave myself the ok. With shipping costs a legit copy would’ve had to have been sold for more than $20, impossible here with books so cheap.

Per capita income in Cambodia is about $500. One can certainly see fleets of luxury vehicles in Phnom Penh; however, most educated urbanites might still only earn $100 to $200 per month and the countryside is hardscrabble poor. Overall, if not for piracy, the market for those products would be very small.

Is it better for the world for Bill Gates to get richer or a low income people to have access to the tools of success? How about book publishers in developed countries? Are their profits more important than educational materials for students who pay less than $400 per year for full-time university tuition?

Music and movies don’t carry the same importance as textbooks and software, but shouldn’t they too be available to all. Universal access to modern culture is the goal, wouldn’t that help to move the world forward?

Whatever the legal or moral implications, I am thrilled to have such a large and wide-ranging collection of music to listen to.