This House believes that downloading music without permission is morally equivalent to theft

Until the 1990s, copying music was a tedious task: you needed to go out and buy an album. If you wanted to copy it, you needed to buy a cassette and then play the entire album while the cassette was recording it. Two developments changed this: one was the invention of easily copyable audio-file formats, most notably MP3. This allowed music-lovers to copy a song with the click of a mouse-button. The second was the spread of the internet, and with it special software which consumers could use to share files, like peer-to-peer-software (p2p, torrents) and Usenet-groups (with the NZB-filesharing method). Now, everyone could both copy and distribute music very easily.

It is important to understand the difference between “distributing” music and “copying” music. Distributing means making the music available for other people, either for profit or not. This is in any case illegal, because even if you buy a copy of a song legally, you never have permission to pass the song on to other people. In the context of peer-to-peer software, uploading is the same as distributing.

Copying means making a copy of a song or album for your own use. Before the MP3-format and the internet, making a copy was a little bit of a grey area. You were allowed to make a copy for private and personal use, but legally speaking only under the following three conditions (this is called the Berne three-step test, after the Berne Convention which laid it down).[1] Copying is only allowed in “certain special cases”.

Copying should not mean that the artist who produced the music cannot exploit their work normally. copying should not hurt the lawful interests of the rights holder (this is often seen as meaning that the private copy exception is only allowed when there is also a way of charging for the private copies being made, so that the artist gets some payment). Before the internet other forms of copying were considered illegal, but probably you would never become involved with any other forms of copying, unless you actually became a professional (criminal!) music pirate with a factory in your backyard, copying and cranking out music CDs for your own profit. But, as noted above, the internet changed all that by making it easy for anyone to copy and distribute music files. Today uploading music without permission is illegal in many parts of the world and nonetheless extremely common. Many cultures and regions of the world have long traditions of sharing music and culture and as such are rather unimpressed when asked to stop doing so. Downloading without permission is illegal in most but not all countries (i.e. in the Netherlands until 2009, it was legal to download under the private copy exception. Just recently, the Dutch government announced they would make downloading without permission illegal there too). This debate only examines the case of downloading, not uploading.

[1] Schonwetter, Tobias, ‘The three-step test within the copyright system’, 31 July 2006,


Theft is an assumption of property rights

Theft is taking something from someone who is the rightful owner without their permission. It doesn’t matter if the rightful owner keeps an original version or not. If you are downloading music from an unofficial source, you are stealing it: you can start listening to that song, without the permission of the original owner. The only way you can get the right to listen to that song is via a legal transaction from which the rights owner can make a profit


Theft always involves a thief taking something away for themselves with the result that the original owner can’t use it anymore. For example, if I steal your bike, you can’t use it anymore. And this is exactly why theft is wrong: you had something which you wanted to use, and now you can’t anymore, simply because I took it.

That’s why downloading music is not theft because it is a form of copying. You download a copy from an original, but the first owner still has the original on his or her computer, and can still enjoy it. In more complicated terms: music files are “non-rival” goods, meaning that my use of the good does not diminish your future use of it.[1]

[1] Investopedia, ‘Rival Good’,

A legal transaction is the only way to achieve free exchange of value

Because the artist made the music, it is their property, in this case “intellectual property”. Property means that the owner/artist has the right to ask something from you in exchange for you gaining access to the music. This may be money. It may also be the requirement that you clearly recognize the artist’s moral right to always be mentioned as the creator of that music. This is called the “free exchange of value”, and this is the most fundamental relationship in our free market economy.

Whatever the artist chooses as payment through a legal transaction, it is his/her basic right to ask this of you. The only way to make sure that he/she can actually exercise that right is by making sure you only take music from the artist through a legal transaction, i.e. with their permission. Only then can we be sure that the desired free exchange of value has taken place


Realistically speaking, music is not even property - for property to really be property, it needs to be tangible (something physical you can touch).[1] If it is tangible, it is easier to keep you from using it, whereas when it is intangible, I can’t. What if you hear a song on the radio which stays in your head all day long because you liked it so much? In economic terms, we call such a good “non-excludable”.[2]

Private property is both a rival good (see above), and excludable. The above shows that music is neither, even though we happen to call it “intellectual property”. That means that music can’t be private property, and copying it can’t really be theft in any normal sense of the word (see above). In addition, the moral right of the artist to be known as the author of a piece of music is also not broken by downloading. People usually sort the music on mp3-players by musician’s name, which means that we’re always recognizing that a certain artist made a certain song. 

[1], ‘Theft – Larceny’,

[2] Blakeley, Nic et al., ‘Non-excludability’, in The Economics of Knowledge: What Makes Ideas Special for Economic Growth, New Zealand Policy Perspective Paper 05/05, November 2005,

Musicians have to eat

Apart from the moral reason, there is also a simple societal reason why it is wrong to download music without permission. The reason is that musicians have to eat, too. Suppose you are an up-and-coming young musician thinking about what to do with your future. You can either become a full time musician or take up a job. If you become a fulltime musician, you’ll be doing what you love. But at the same time, everyone will be downloading all your music for free, simply because they can. This means that music won’t be a good, stable source of income for you, and this means you’d rather take up a job. Since you’re not working on your music every day, your talent will be underdeveloped, and the little pieces of music you do write, for example in the weekend, are not as good as they could have been. So, downloading music without permission will lead to fewer good musicians. That’s not only bad for the musicians, but also for us: we’ll have less good music to listen to.


It’s true that musicians have to eat, too, but it’s not true that downloading cuts their income. Most of the money spent on music goes to record companies, not to artists, from each retail CD sold the artist only gets between 3 and 10%.[1] Those record companies have been keeping musicians on a leash for decades, paying them less than they could. They paid them enough to make sure they would remain fulltime musicians, but not so much that they didn’t bother to create new albums. So if downloading music files means record companies miss out on some income, we shouldn’t feel bad about it.

[1] Information is Beautiful, ‘How Much Do Music Artists Earn Online?’, 13 April 2010,

There is a private copy exception

Downloading music without permission is allowed under the “private copy exception”. Practically, the exception meant that you were allowed to copy, but not distribute any music. Downloading music from a torrentsite or newsgroup is essentially the same. People who download music do it purely for their own enjoyment and use. They have no intention to resell the songs and make a profit from it. So, if it was legal to make a copy for personal use before the internet was invented, why then should it suddenly be different afterwards? Indeed while the private copy exception is not universal it is allowed under the Information Society Directive within the EU.[1] And when it comes to peer-to-peer software, you can turn off the option to upload automatically. This allows you to only download, but at a slower speed.

[1] European Parliament, Article 6/4, ‘Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society’, Official Journal, L 167 , 22 June 2001, pp. 10 – 19,


Downloading does not fall under the so-called “private copy exception”. The private copy exception only covered those rare cases when you took the effort to make a copy from a lawful source (perhaps putting a song you owned on CD on to a cassette so you could listen to it in your car). With the internet, the situation changed hugely. Firstly, copying became a lot easier. Secondly, the home copy-exception applies to when you borrow an album from a friend - someone you know. Online, you’re downloading from anyone, anywhere who happens to have the song you want. Thirdly, when you start downloading using peer-to-peer software, you will usually also start uploading at the same time. It’s the nature of p2p-technology that you both distribute and consume. So, you’re not just making a copy for yourself, you will also be distributing the same song, and that distribution is in any case wrong. These changes together mean that the three step-test is not met, so downloading does not fall under the private copy exception and is therefore illegal.

Downloading is morally right

Even when downloading is illegal, it still is right from a moral viewpoint. The reason is that by downloading, you’re not hurting the artists, but the record companies. And these record companies have engaged in unfair practices towards consumers for decades. They asked €20 euros for a CD, when a blank CD only costs about 5 cents. They still engage in unfair practices, for example via DRM. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and it means that companies limit how and when you can listen to a song. For example, you can buy a song and listen to it on your MP-3 player, but if you want to play it on your laptop, you have to buy the same song again. Moreover, record companies have sued individual consumers for huge fines for downloading just a few songs. Most recently one ordinary woman was fined $1.92 million dollars, which just doesn’t add up to the “damage” these individuals are supposed to have done.[1] That’s unfair, and because it’s unfair, we are justified in download without permission.

[1] Kravets, David, ‘Feds Support $1.92 Million RIAA File Sharing Verdict’,, 14 August 2009,


Record companies have been blamed for unfair practices, like DRM, “milking” artists (see opposition argument 3), or suing individual downloaders for unfair damages. But record companies also have a very positive role to play: they scout every day for new talent, and offer training and production studios for up-and-coming musicians. Moreover, they provide valuable marketing services, making sure that new artists get heard instead of drowning in the vast sea of information that is the internet. Consider this, how do you even know which song to download? A large part of that is because record companies get the music out there, on to radio stations, all over MySpace, on MTV, so that you get to hear it for the first time. Those are things a musician is not trained to do and very often does not want to do, which is why it is good to have record companies[1].

[1] Hole, Max, ‘The future for record companies’, ifpi, June 2007,

Downloaders spend more on music

Downloading songs could mean more income for musicians. Concerts (plus merchandise like T-shirts) are becoming a bigger source of income. But suppose a new musician comes to town. How am I supposed to know if I want to go to their concert if I don’t know their music? Previously, I wouldn’t have gone since I didn’t want to spend money on first buying their album and then buying the ticket. Now, I can quickly check out their music by downloading some songs to see if I like it, and then go to their concert. I save money on the albums, and will go more to concerts. Indeed a study by Demos has shown that people who illegally download music spend £30 more on music per year than those who do not.[1]

[1] Demos, ‘Illegal downloaders are one of music industry’s biggest customers’, 1 November 2009,


It is a mistake to think that when you’re downloading, there isn’t someone else making a huge profit. Torrent sites and other “pirate” sites gain huge amounts of income from the advertisements on their site. This means that they profit from material which is not theirs. Why should they profit from material they have gotten unfairly and without permission?


Blakeley, Nic et al., ‘Non-excludability’, in The Economics of Knowledge: What Makes Ideas Special for Economic Growth, New Zealand Policy Perspective Paper 05/05, November 2005,

Demos, ‘Illegal downloaders are one of music industry’s biggest customers’, 1 November 2009,

European Parliament, Article 6/4, ‘Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society’, Official Journal, L 167 , 22 June 2001, pp. 10 – 19,

Hole, Max, ‘The future for record companies’, ifpi, June 2007,

Information is Beautiful, ‘How Much Do Music Artists Earn Online?’, 13 April 2010,

Investopedia, ‘Rival Good’,

Kravets, David, ‘Feds Support $1.92 Million RIAA File Sharing Verdict’,, 14 August 2009,, ‘Theft – Larceny’,

Schonwetter, Tobias, ‘The three-step test within the copyright system’, 31 July 2006,