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Back in tune

Money | A substantial increase in legal online music sales proves moral standards can be restored

Issue: "Superheroes strike again," Aug. 6, 2005

For the last several years, the recording industry has been in a panic. CD sales have been falling, while online piracy-listeners stealing songs by trading them illegally over the internet-has been growing rapidly.

But a July 21 report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) suggests that the popularity of online piracy may be peaking. The report said that legal online music sales in the United States, Britain, Germany, and France have more than tripled, climbing from 57 million single tracks in the first half of 2004 to 180 million in the first half of this year. The report also cites evidence from surveys that illegal downloading has flattened worldwide and even fallen in some countries.

Technology explains part of the trend. With 13 percent growth in the number of broadband lines worldwide, more people were able to purchase music online than in 2004. But 13 percent broadband growth cannot completely explain 150 percent sales growth.

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Something more seems to be at work. The new numbers appear, at least in part, to be a textbook example of the biblical doctrine of common grace, with the shaming and prosecuting of wrongdoers prompting changes in societal behavior.

On the shame front, the recording industry went all-out in 1999 after Napster popularized online piracy. The notoriously amoral industry suddenly found a moral absolute that it could champion: You shall not steal. "The [pirate's] credo is as wrong as it ever was," says the website of the Recording Industry Association of America. "Stealing is still illegal, unethical, and all too frequent in today's digital age."

Musicians like Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, and the Dixie Chicks added their voices to the shame campaign, appealing to the loyalty of listeners. "Basically, it's about music-if you didn't create it, why should you exploit it?" said the recording artist "Tool." "True fans don't rip off their artists."

But in addition to the Cotton Mather approach, the industry (together with law enforcement officials) took the Wyatt Earp approach, using the law to go after online pirates. The industry filed thousands of lawsuits worldwide against people who downloaded music illegally, while the U.S. Justice Department and other authorities began prosecuting those who operate large file-sharing networks.

The result, said IFPI chairman John Kennedy, is that "attitudes are changing." The research group Jupiter, for instance, found that 37 percent of British file-sharers are cutting down on piracy and they cite the threat of legal action as the chief reason.

If the trend toward legal downloading continues, its lessons should be encouraging to conservatives:

  • Vocal defense of a moral standard is not always in vain.
  • You can legislate morality.
  • Society can successfully discourage bad behavior brought on by new technology.

Mr. Kennedy is certainly encouraged: "We are now seeing real evidence that people are increasingly put off by illegal file-sharing and turning to legal ways of enjoying music online."

For that, he can most likely thank the law-the one written in statutes and the one written on hearts.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor of WORLD Magazine.


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