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Kids just don't understand: The real cause of online music piracy

By Barry and Michele Fagin
web posted September 29, 2003

More than a dozen Coloradans have been sued by the music industry in its fight against online music piracy. Many of these are college and even high school students. They're just the tip of the iceberg, picked to show young people that record companies mean business.

This is just bizarre. The online world has become, like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, truly "topsy turvy." Music companies who sell to teens are now suing them. Since when do businesses sue their best customers? It boggles the mind.

We have to ask: How did copyright violation become so common that companies will sue their best customers to stamp it out?

You'll hear all sorts of answers to this question. "Kids are immoral." "Technology has run amok." "The internet has made intellectual property rights obsolete." These answers all reinforce pre-existing views of the people who believe them. That's why they're wrong.

We have a problem because intellectual property rights are hard to understand and even harder to enforce.

Intellectual property is hard to understand because it's so different from physical property. If I steal your car, you no longer have it. But if you loan me a CD and I rip it to MP3s, I'm quite happy to give it back. Now we can both listen to Radiohead.

In that situation, it's much harder to see where the harm is. Any parent who has tried to explain to their teenager's blank stare why downloading copyrighted music is wrong, knows just what we're talking about.

Things get worse on the Internet, which makes intellectual property rights difficult to protect. The Internet's job is to make information available to people. It neither knows nor cares who owns bits, only about whipping them around the world at lightning speed. Copyright is a law of man, not a law of physics.

But all is not lost. Entrepreneurs are creating new ways to trade intellectual property on the Internet. Apple's iTunes platform, for example, lets you download individual songs for less than a dollar, with the complete consent of copyright owners.

Future technological innovations may support micropayments, where you pay a few cents (or even less) every time you enjoy a digital work of art. Since that price is below the value of the time that most people would take to copy something, this seems very promising.

But we also have to do a better job of explaining to our children the importance of wealth creation in American life. Wealth is not lying around waiting to be found. It is created by human beings.

That's why copyright protections were included in our Constitution. Eager to "secure the blessings of liberty,"" the Founders sought to encourage citizens to create wealth by assuring that they would be rewarded if they created what others liked.

When someone creates a work of art, it is theirs until they choose to share it. One of the most effective ways to encourage sharing is to let them choose freely how to do so. Most owners of intellectual property are very eager to share their work with the world, but on their own terms. Most of the time, they ask that you give them something in return.

So when you copy a CD, you aren't stealing music. You are stealing the right to listen to that music, a right that you deserve only if the owner grants it to you. That is a much harder concept to understand, for both children and adults.

That's why it's a mistake to say that teenagers copy music because they're immoral. Teenagers copy music because they've been brought up in a culture that doesn't know much about intellectual property rights. Because they don't yet have the skills to create wealth, they don't know how to value intellectual property. Combine youthful ignorance with an omnipresent technology that can slice through IP protections like tissue paper, and you've got a societal problem.

It's our job as parents to fix that. Talk to your kids about how important property rights are. Explain to them that living in a free country means that we can't make people give us something for nothing, even if it's something we really want.

Young people don't want to just be told that something is wrong. They want to know why it's wrong. Property rights are ultimately human rights, and thus offer the most satisfying explanation a parent can provide. But until that concept takes root in the minds of tomorrow's wealth creators, they'll continue to be sued by companies that once called them customers.

Barry Fagin is the Senior Fellow in Technology Policy at the Independence Institute. Michele Fagin practices intellectual property law in Colorado Springs. They are the founders of Families Against Internet Censorship, and are the parents of two teenagers. © 2003 The Independence Institute

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