iPods and the Gold Coin Dilemma

Smaller than a cigarette pack, an iPod is an electronic device that can hold up to 15,000 songs. The ease with which music can be downloaded into an iPod has created a moral dilemma for those who access the Internet easily. In fact, the iPod may be more morally challenging than a gold coin lying on a sidewalk.

Many people have played the gold coin trick, where an actor seems absentmindedly to drop a gold coin. A cameraman, hidden nearby, waits to see how passersby react to seeing the coin fall to the sidewalk. Will they try to give it back to the man who dropped it? Or, will they pocket the coin and walk off?

The gold coin of the current generation is music, and the Internet has taken the place of the cameraman because we can go onto the web and download “free” music without getting caught. Those who do get caught complain that they haven’t taken anything because the original is still there. But the person downloading the music is not simply making off with a copy; he is stealing the copy the owner could have sold. And that’s theft.

The problem caused by the ease with which music can be downloaded is that many people who wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the gold coin and give it back to the rightful owner think nothing of downloading a file free of charge because they don’t think of it as theft. It’s hard to equate a collection of bits and bytes you can’t see with a gold coin you can sink your teeth into. Even beyond this, however, are the websites that advertise legal downloading for as little as a dollar a month, aiming to pick up the conscientious surfers who wouldn’t download music without permission. As a lawyer who represents people who like to get paid for their creative efforts, I thought an unlimited number of songs for a dollar a month sounded too good to be true; someone was probably not getting paid for his or her creative efforts.

The information on the dollar-a-month websites was vague as to whether a license to download was being granted. A Google search on legal downloads turned up a website that listed the few “legal” sites in existence. All of them were $9.95 a month or more, and all stated they were licensed to let you download music they had in their databanks.

Copyright is the right to copy something. If you buy a copy of The Da Vinci Code, you own that copy, but you do not have the right to make copies of it. Not for you or anyone else. The same goes for music. Imagine how wrong it would seem if someone figured out how to copy an iPod and people started cloning them. The cloned copies would be considered stolen property, wouldn’t they? The same goes for the music you download for nothing. Remember the gold coin on the sidewalk; it isn’t yours, and neither is the hot new music you didn’t pay for.

The author is a local attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law and can be reached at LawEur@aol.com.


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