Richard Gibbs argues that holding an international "Day of Sharing" would be a radical gesture on behalf of the beleaguered music industry.
How would it work? "Order your favorite meal, eat it, and walk out," he cites as an example. "Test drive a car and simply keep driving. Fill your pockets with candy from the 7-Eleven."
If this freeloading sounds absurd to you, and you figure Mr. Gibbs must be some kind of nut, rest assured he has been called that already. The composer of film and television scores for titles such as "Dr. Dolittle," "The Simpsons," and "Battlestar Galactica" is forging ahead despite warnings that he could go to jail should anyone take him up on his odd idea.
Gibbs's goal is actually a sober one: Highlight the absurdity of people getting music free of charge on the Internet and urge lawmakers to make Internet service providers (ISPs, such as cable and telephone companies) financially responsible to creative artists.
Instead of paying for songs, today's file-sharer can go online to a file-sharing site, type in the name of a song, and choose from a list of songs provided by willing "sharers," who let their music be copied again for nothing. [Editor's note: In the original article, Spinners and eMusic were wrongly identified as free file-sharing sites.]
"File-sharing has allowed the entire world to enjoy – without paying – the fruits of the labors of countless creators of intellectual property," Gibbs writes on his website, thedayofsharing.com. But his campaign doesn't target those who download or share music illegally online – it zeroes in on the companies that allow it.
Gibbs's dramatic crusade reflects the frustration of many other musicians. The music industry has yet to figure out a way to pay the creators of music in an Internet age of easy digital copying.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lists 45 sites where consumers can legally purchase songs over the Internet. But illegal downloads still outnumber legal buys by 20 to 1, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). About 40 billion files were illegally shared in 2008, the IFPI found.
Students make up the bulk of offenders, perhaps because growing up with file sharing has accustomed them to getting music free. Gibbs wants to change that perception.
"He can't seriously believe [the Day of Sharing] will happen," says Don Gorder, chair of the music management department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Gibbs's alma mater. "But in the process of thinking about a day like this, perhaps the public will come around to understanding how musicians feel – that their music is going out there every day and people are taking it and not paying for it."
Music's online shift
Hard times hit the music industry with the birth of Napster in 1999 – a technology that allowed people to easily copy and distribute MP3 files, leading to accusations of music copyright violations. A generation of music consumers became used to downloading songs free. When the US Supreme Court shut down Napster in 2001, other sites popped up in its place.
Since then, music CD sales have precipitously declined, dropping 20 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.
Apple has said that it will remove by April anti-copying restrictions, known as digital rights management, or DRM, from iTunes songs and allow record companies to set a range of prices for them. Currently, iTunes consumers pay 99 cents per song, but encoding prevents them from copying the song more than six times. The new policy allows customers to transfer music to non-Apple music devices like MP3 players, computers, and phones.
DRM has been widely seen as ineffective, even a strong disincentive for people who would pay for music online.
Legal single-track downloads totaled 1.1 billion in 2008, up 27 percent from 2007, according to IFPI. These figures suggest that consumers are willing to pay for digital music downloads.
But the iTunes model won't really work without meaningful enforcement of piracy laws, says Gibbs. Another solution, he says, would be for ISPs to pay a flat fee per subscriber into a fund, which could then be apportioned to copyright holders according to the number of downloads or streams of each song.
The RIAA has begun working with ISPs as an alternative to its recently abandoned strategy of suing individual file-sharers, according to Kevin Parks, a copyright attorney at Leydig, Voit, and Mayer Ltd. in Chicago.
File sharing violates intellectual property statutes and eliminates an important stream of revenue for composers, artists, and musicians, says Tom Lee, president of the American Federation of Musicians. "Richard's proposal would place the matter right in front of the American public. Perhaps then, those who choose to illegally download would understand its damaging impact on those in the artistic, creative community that is vital to our society."
More than a stunt
Not everyone is enamored with Gibbs's idea. He may be treading on dicey legal ground by encouraging larceny. But if Gibbs wants to draw attention to his cause, getting arrested may actually be a good result for him, says David Fagundes, a professor of law at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles.
Others suggest that the tactic is out of touch with reality. "Students just don't see file sharing as stealing," says Michal Strahelevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
Students make a distinction between common thievery and file-swapping, she says. "They are not walking into a store and taking something physical out without paying for it," she says. "So it doesn't feel like a crime to them."
Which, of course, is the point of "The Day of Sharing" – to argue that free file-sharing is stealing.
To many, the way forward still looks murky. Music labels have been unsuccessful in stopping downloading with lawsuits, notes Berklee's Mr. Gorder, adding, "The genie is already out of the bottle."
"The busiest shopping day of the year should provide many opportunities for 'sharing.' "