Some students turn to illegal downloading sites like LimeWire to find music. The consequences of being caught for illegal downloading are usually hefty fines to the record company in question.

As prices rise on iTunes, illegal music downloading remains an issue with expensive consequences

By Noah Grumman

For senior Jane*, downloading music is simple and most importantly, free. In a matter of seconds, she can use LimeWire to get nearly any song at no cost. It’s illegal, but who will ever find out?

Illegal downloading remains common among music fans and students, despite iTunes and many other legal downloading sites.

“Most of my friends [download illegally] too,” Jane said. “I only have one or two friends who actually buy music.”

And though the act seems harmless and widespread, the consequences can be severe.

One Minnesota woman was recently ordered to pay $1.92 million for illegally sharing 24 songs on the Internet, according to the June 19, 2009 article “$1.92 million fine for music piracy” in The New York Times. The harsh penalty was later reduced to $54,000, but the warning was clear.

According to Jason Elvers, an intellectual property lawyer in Columbus who has worked in the music industry, huge lawsuits against even minor illegal downloaders and sharers are one of the ways that the recording industry is attempting to combat the illegal downloading problem.

“[Record companies] realize that there is no way that they can go out and file lawsuits against every single person who downloaded illegally, because the practice is so widespread,” Elvers said. “The more they can get the word out and strike fear into the hearts of these people who are [illegally downloading], the better it is for them.”

The warning is not enough for some illegal downloaders, like Jane.

“I’ve heard stories, but no one I know has been caught yet,” Jane said.

And chances are good that she never will get caught.

“In all likelihood, if you go out and download a handful of songs illegally, nothing is going to happen to you,” Elvers said. “But just because you’re not a heavy downloader of illegal music files, I wouldn’t think that you’re completely safe or immune from legal action.”

Besides lawsuits, downloading illegally raises another issue—does downloading from these sites count as stealing?

“I don’t really think about it,” Jane said. “[But] I feel bad because I know the music industry isn’t doing too well.”

For many who say they would not otherwise steal or shoplift, the ethical situation of downloading illegally is different.

“When you can buy songs for 99 cents on iTunes, people think, ‘A dollar here and there, what’s going to happen?’” Elvers said. “When they’re uploading and downloading and copying, there’s no physical manifestation that they can really see or hold on to, so to some extent, it feels less wrong.”

Sites like Grooveshark and even YouTube are another debate for the illegal music battle. On Grooveshark, members can upload music to the site that can then be played for free by anyone who visits the site. The same is true for YouTube, including music videos.

Because the websites themselves are not usually responsible or liable for the user-uploaded music, it is difficult for record labels to pick out whom to target, according to Elvers. In a June 18, 2009 blog, Rolling Stone magazine wrote that Grooveshark “operates in a legal gray area…enjoy it while it lasts.”

The future of music downloading is still difficult to predict, Elvers said.

“There are certainly folks out there who think that copyright laws should be changed so this stuff isn’t illegal,” Elvers said. “It’s really hard to predict. Whether it’s going to be five, 10, or 20 years before a resolution is found, it’s hard to say.”