Nov 10

Ripping CDs - Can something be illegal and ethical at the same time?

Music Piracy…this phrase sometimes invokes feelings in people, but sometimes not; sometimes people just don't care about it. I mean, after all, the RIAA isn't breaking down our doors, so it's not that big of a deal, right?

The big problem which is usually overlooked by pundits and analysts is that this apathy is created because “right” and “wrong” have changed from those ethics with which we've grown up. The law during the seventies, eighties, and nineties said that once you purchased a tape or CD, it was yours to do with as you wished, as long as you didn't try to sell dupes of it. This is a commensense approach; as long as you've bought it “fair and square,” you can listen to it in different ways.

Now, the law (as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) has been changed to say that when you buy a CD, you can only listen to it in its original form. In other words, you cannot duplicate the CD to keep a copy in the car, you cannot rip the CD to listen to it on your computer, etc. This is ludicrous! I've paid for it, why can't I listen to it however I want?

The underlying question is really that of “usage rights.”  This used to not be an issue, because once you purchased content on a physical medium such as a book or record, there was no way to make you stop using it short of coming to your house and taking it back. But now that there are computers and easy ways to block content from being consumed, the big companies are thinking, “Hey, we can make more money off of this if we make them pay twice for listening to music in two different places!” When we buy music nowadays, we're supposedly only paying for the rights to listen to that music, we're not actually owning a copy of it.

Think of it like most End User License Agreements (EULAs) you get when you install software. If you've ever stopped to read one, you'll notice that when you buy software, you don't own a copy of the software, you own a license to use that software. Therefore, the software company has the right to disable or modify the software at any time, since they own it. The interesting thing is that in a recent California court case, a judge struck down the legality of EULAs in some situations, because they are contracts that are forced upon the user without the option of contract negotiation.

So, that brings me to the root of my title question: what makes something unethical? Is something unethical because the government says so? I believe that ethics are rooted in Truth, which is revealed by the supreme God of the universe, and they have nothing to do with government, except that government will reflect the ethics of those running it.