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The sharing of MP3 music and its legality is a major issue in our legal system at this time. It has been a battle in the courts for several years now. It all began with the legendary downfall of the original bad boy of sharing, Napster. Despite the legal actions of the music industry, the file sharing community continues to thrive. Millions of users still log on to a handful of programs and illegally trade MP3’s and other computer programs. College students are suspected to be one of the major culprits of People to People file sharing. A survey was conducted in order to obtain an understanding of why students of James Madison University would use People to People sharing programs. More importantly, it was to gain insight into the ethical outlook of students in concern to the sharing of MP3 music files. The survey attempts to determine why, in light of the ethical issue and possible legal repercussions, do JMU students still trade illegally pirated music?
The survey was composed of ten multiple choice questions and administered to twenty random students. The students were taken from various areas around the campus in order to obtain a wide variety of responses. It sought to have respondents who were of various age, race, and sex. The surveys were handed out in a classroom, a dining hall, and an events committee meeting for the University Programming Board. Students remained anonymous to the administer and their confidentiality was assured.
Most of the students filled out the survey with relative ease and only had to debate on a couple of the questions. Several students were kind enough to give a few extra minutes of their time for various follow up questions. I began to ask students which questions gave them the most trouble. Many felt the last question, asking if downloading MP3’s for free is ethical, was the most thought provoking question. Nineteen of the twenty students surveyed downloaded MP3’s. Fourteen said they felt it was unethical to download the MP3’s, yet most of them continue to download. The question seemed to stimulate an ethical debate inside the respondents of which they had trouble answering. A vast majority of the students simply do not care about pushing ethics aside and continue to download pirated music.
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Why, despite the view of MP3 sharing being unethical and illegal, do the students continue to share? Question three sought out the answer to this. It asked those being surveyed what their top reason for using the sharing programs was. They were given three choices which included convenience, price, or selection. Price and selection were the top two choices. Price received nine of the votes and selection received eight. Follow up interviews revealed that many students simply did not want to pay money to purchase every song they liked. They felt it was a waste to pay $15 for a CD that only had a few songs to their liking. Students enjoyed hand picking the songs that they downloaded. The CD’s that they created were one hundred percent their own, free, and to their liking. One female student stated, “I love to create my own party mixes. I can make the CD with the latest music and not get all the junk that comes on most Pop(music) CDs.” This is something none of them can get from a store bought CD.
Many of the questions tapped into the relationship between the music industry and file sharing networks. MP3’s, listened to more often by thirteen of the students, are now more popular than compact disc. The music industry sees this as the major reason for a loss of sales. CNN reported in April of 2002 that “Sales were down 5 percent last year, a loss that's likely to grow” (Quest). As a result, 12 of the respondents were aware that the widespread use of MP3 sharing could be financially damaging the music industry. Yet, when asked if they agreed with bands such a Metallica taking legal action against the sharing networks only four respondents saw it as a legit move. Why do most students feel that the music industry has no right to fight for their profit? Follow ups showed that many students see the industry as corporate giants with billions of dollars. They could simply care less about taking a few bucks out of the big industry pockets. It seemed like a modern day Robin Hood complex. Many students also felt strapped for cash and file sharing provides an excellent outlet for cutting entertainment cost. One student sarcastically remarked, “I wear the same dirty clothes everyday and eat cafeteria food. Like I really care about taking a few dollars from the pockets of multimillionaires.”
Could there be a less costly solution that would fit college student’s needs? Two questions I found very significant asked students if they would pay a monthly fee to use file sharing programs. It then was followed by a question as to how much they would be willing to pay. Only eight of the respondents would be willing to pay anything for the service. And the maximum amount they would be willing to pay was ten dollars a month. Of those willing to pay anything, six would only give up at most five dollars. It was quite extraordinary that most students would not even pay the cost of a CD to download thousands of songs. It appeared that college students would budge only slightly towards a solution on file sharing.
So on the whole, do college students have a firm belief about the trading of MP3 files? Not in the slightest sense. Most of the students have a high level of confusion or just don’t care about the ethics surrounding the sharing of pirated music. The actions are in direct contradiction to student’s belief that the sharing is unethical. It simply does not bother them to steal profits from the music industry. Unfortunately it seems as if ethics mean nothing in the face of money. Obviously students would rather steal and pirate than pay for music products. The music industry wants to make more money and students want to keep theirs. The debate about ethics is just a façade to cover up the real issue of profits.
Nicholson, Christopher. Online File Sharing Survey. James Madison University,
Harrisonburg, Va. 25 January 2003.
Quest, Richard. “Music for nothing -- your tunes for free.” CNN.Com. 2 January 2003 <http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/europe/04/29/napster.descendants/index.html>.