Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Jailing the Peasants
The Social Value of Civil Disobedience

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 16, 2003 --  

When Mohandus Gandhi strolled onto a desert beach in British India seventy years ago, he was in a typically subversive mood. With the reflection of the tropical sun glistening off of evaporating puddles of brine, Gandhi leaned down to pick up a piece of dried sea salt. In so doing, he violated the hated salt law of 1827, which gave British colonial masters proprietary control over salt distribution. Within weeks, Gandhi was in jail, along with 100,000 peasants who dared to gather salt that lay for the taking.1

The prosecution experienced by Gandhi and his followers is now a familiar feeling to Americans. Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed lawsuits against 261 people for "illegally" gathering music files on the Internet, then threatened to sue thousands more.2 A huge number of Americans are at risk from these lawsuits. File swapping software maker Kazaa claims that people have downloaded 230 million copies of its product worldwide3, and market research firm Ipsos-Reid estimates that 60 million Americans have downloaded music from the Internet.4 These enormous numbers of rebels make Gandhi's salt rebellion look pitifully insignificant by comparison.

In face of such a massive rebellion, it should be no surprise that the recorded music corporations are filing the lawsuits. The entrenched industry has existed for a full century, and billions in profits are now under threat from technology and changing social mores. Although the group successfully shut down the Napster service two years ago, in April they lost their legal case to shut down the next generation trading services.5 With legal action against corporations nearing a dead end, the industry is making a last desperate attempt to save itself from the same oblivion that faced Britain's salt monopoly in India.

There is some evidence that the RIAA's counterattack is working. Estimates by market research firm NPD Group say that the number of American households downloading music dropped from 14.5 million in April of this year to 10.4 million in June -- a significant drop one month after the RIAA announced plans to sue individual file swappers.6 Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of Americans swapping files may have dropped even further since the lawsuits were filed last week.

Is the fear of being sued enough to stop people from downloading music? This question is of critical importance. Neither the RIAA nor the American court system care able to handle cases against 10.4 million file swappers. Rationally speaking, the risk of being sued is small. Internet service providers have received about 1,600 subpoenas to reveal the identity of people owning the accounts used to share their music. Even if every single one of those subpoenas leads to a lawsuit, they would amount to only one out of every 6,500 people downloading music in June, using the NPD Group's numbers. Thus, the risk of a lawsuit is about the same as being killed in an auto accident in a given year.7 While very real, that risk is not enough to stop people from driving cars. If the actual risks of RIAA prosecution were understood by the public, they would probably not be great enough to deter file swapping either.

For this reason, it is in the interests of the recording industry to distort this perceived risk by creating as much fear as possible. The much-derided lawsuit against a 12-year-old girl living in public housing was no media blunder. The target was designed to suggest that nobody is safe, and everyone should be afraid.

The fear may be short lived. By the end of this year, third generation file-swapping software will be available that uses encryption and public computers called proxy servers to make downloading confidential and untraceable. These services will stop the RIAA's current strategy. The recording industry therefore has precious few months to convince a skeptical public of its central message: downloading music over the Internet is stealing.

This message is utter nonsense. Simply put, copying is not stealing. If a person owns a painting, and a robber carries it away, that is stealing -- the owner no longer has the picture. But if a passing cameraman snaps a photo of the painting, the owner still has his original. Thus, even without permission, copying is simply not the same thing as stealing.

While it is true that freely duplicating a piece of intellectual property lowers the income of a copyright holder who otherwise would have sold the copy, the social problem caused by unauthorized duplication is far more subtle than the term "stealing" would suggest. Indeed, the moral case for legally prohibiting duplication is dubious. The social benefits of intellectual property laws are not absolute. In the case of the music industry, the vast majority of revenues from sales do not go to reward the artists who created the works. Alternate legal frameworks already exist that make music freely available for broadcast over every radio station in the country. With this in mind, it is perfectly acceptable, in a moral sense, for a citizenry to seek a redefinition of these laws -- even through civil disobedience.

In the case of the British salt laws, 100,000 jailings were not enough to break the will of the people. The mass rebellion continued by social activists as well as those greedy for previously expensive salt. In March of 1931, free collection of salt was legalized in all coastal areas of India.8 Within two decades, the Indian business of the British salt barons collapsed, lowering salt costs for peasants across India.

Whether or not the music conglomerates will suffer the same end as the salt barons is uncertain. The indisputable fact is that social movements similar to the salt rebellion can lead to positive changes. Given the stagnantly opaque business practices of the recorded music industry, change is long overdue.


1. Kurlansky, Mark, Salt A World History, Penguin Books, 2002, pp 347-352.

2. The Washington Post, Music Industry Sues Online Song Swappers, September 9, 2003

3. Kazaa, Press Release, May 26, 2003

4. Ipsos-Reid, Press Release, 2003

5. The Washington Post, Ibid.

6. NPD Group, RIAA Lawsuits Appear to Reduce Music File Sharing, August 21, 2003

7. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2003

8. Kurlansky, Ibid.