It’s official: 2009 was the worst year for the record labels in a decade. So was 2008, and before that 2007 and 2006. In fact, industry revenues have been declining for the past 10 years. Digital sales are growing, but not as fast as traditional sales are falling.
Maybe that’s because illegal downloads are so easy. People have been pirating intellectual property for centuries, but it used to be a time-consuming way to generate markedly inferior copies. These days, high-quality copies are effortless. According to the Pew Internet project, people use file-sharing software more often than they do iTunes and other legal shops.
I’d like to believe, as many of my friends seem to, that this practice won’t do much harm. But even as I’ve heard over the past decade that things weren’t that bad, that the music industry was moving to a new, better business model, each year’s numbers have been worse. Maybe it’s time to admit that we may never find a way to reconcile consumers who want free entertainment with creators who want to get paid.
Reflecting on this problem, the computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg recently noted that although we have strong instinctive feelings about ownership, intellectual property doesn’t always fit into that framework. The harm done by individual acts of piracy is too small and too abstract. “The nature of intellectual property,” he wrote, “makes it hard to maintain the social and empathic constraints that keep us from taking each other’s things.”