Sunday, August 14, 2011

"I am a college student who listens to music I download from the internet. This is probably illegal..."

There must be tens of thousands (millions?) of youngsters out there who qualify to make that statement, at least that first part. Should you continue to do it? That is, steal a work of art over which someone else has invested talent, time, and effort, not to mention money? What are the ethics involved, if at all?

Here, in his response to an anonymous New York Times reader's question (quoted partly in the headline), are the views of Randy Cohen, who till recently wrote The Ethicist column in that newspaper:

To download music from the Net illegally is theft, depriving songwriters, performers, music publishers and record companies of payment for their work. It is not so iniquitous as tossing a canvas sack over Elton John's head and swatting him with a stick until he sings ''Candle in the Wind'' (or stops singing it, depending on your taste), but it is dishonest, and you should not do it.

Mind you, Cohen wrote this back in 2000 (hence the witty reference to Candle in the Wind), but what he says still applies, don't you think?


Cohen also explains, again in an intelligently entertaining manner, why illegal downloading of music is also unethical:

Your temptation is understandable. In a perverse kind of social progress, the Internet makes it easy to steal songs right in your own home, while you're still in your pajamas. You might almost make a case that it is unethical of Time Warner, say, to tantalize honest music lovers beyond human endurance. This is a ticklish line of reasoning, however, perilously close to blaming the victim. That is, even if I sashay around town in a sport coat made of $100 bills, your robbing me is unethical. Unethical, but understandable.

Want to read more? Go here.

What does Randy Cohen have to say about plagiarism by college students in their written assignments? Read his answer to this preposterous question posed by a parent:

When my daughter and her fellow college students handed in term papers, their professor had them submit their work to, a Web site that detects plagiarism, something he had never done before. This has a whiff of entrapment. Shouldn’t the prof have announced in advance that this would be required, giving the class a chance to clean up its work?

Cohen replied: I’m astonished you believe a professor should help cheaters “clean up” — more accurately, “cover up” — their deceit. It should be needless to say that students ought not cheat in any case. If the professor provided a distant early warning each time he intended to actually confirm students’ honesty, he would in effect encourage them to cheat whenever he did not issue such a warning. He might as well send out an Evite: Feel free to plagiarize this week; I won’t be checking.

Read Cohen's full response here.

And to view, and read, the collection of Ethicist columns published in The New York Times over the years, go here.


  1. Interesting post, sir.
    I have a different take on this:

    Plagiarism doesn't apply to music. You cannot have a generic rule for all art forms.

    Randy Cohen simply doesn't know what he's talking about because he's probably never made any music worth mentioning. That's why he said downloading music is the same "as tossing a canvas sack over Elton John's head and swatting him with a stick until he sings".

    It's like saying I should pay to take a photograph of a Da Vinci sculpture.

    Music is a performing art. That's why downloading music is not the same as "forcing" somebody to perform.
    And if any artist claims that it is then he's not really a musician.

    The biggest musicians in the business are now offering their music,for free or a nominal price, over the internet.

    If you call this robbery you count the peanuts they get paid from album sales. :)
    The "recording industry" is an ineffective, perverse model that adds "business" to an art form.

    Almost every sensible musician I've met would rather give their music for free than put a price on it.

    They would rather earn, in a much more dignified manner, by performing
    live or selling merchandise.

  2. Varun: May I request you to give me names of the musicians who have said openly that their work may be downloaded free? Are these musicians a tiny minority? Or would they be the majority?

    And that reference to Elton John in the piece above is humour. I didn't interpret that sentence the way you did: "downloading music is the same 'as tossing a canvas sack over Elton John's head and swatting him with a stick until he sings' ".

  3. I don't know if they are a minority or majority. I do know that some of THE best musicians in the world (such as Radiohead)are all for it. :)

    Others include Annie Lennox, Billy Bragg, Blur, Pink Floyd, The Clash... If you "trust but verify", here's a link:

    Also, any good Indian band (such as The Bicycle Days, Junkyard Groove, etc.) promote free downloads.


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