Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Depression Isn't a Crime, Piracy Isn't Theft
Yesterday in Scotland, a 58-year-old nurse and grandmother named Ann Muir was sentenced to three years probation for downloading 30,000 songs on the Internet. Muir was "caught" downloading these songs after an investigation by the British Phonographic Industry and the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry (the RIAA's British and international counterparts respectively).
This marks the first time in the UK that someone guilty of file-sharing has faced a custodial sentence (as opposed to having to pay a hefty fine). Some might say that Muir is "lucky" for not getting jail time, but what makes this so horrifying is that the sentence opens up the possibility for just that.
There is, of course, the bigger picture, which is how many CEOs and banksters in the UK got away with ripping off the public during the massive bailouts. Clarence Darrow's description of the US legal system--a net that catches minnows while letting the whales slip through--obviously applies on the other side of the pond. Then there's the fact that Muir works in a public service that is normally one of the first on the chopping block in post-Great Panic UK. The National Health Service in both Britain and Scotland are target number-one for conservatives and deficit-hawks. It's quite likely that Ann Muir's job and wages have been at risk more than a few times over the past several years.
But there's something even starker behind all of this, something that gets to the very reason that people listen to music in the first place, why it's not a privilege but a right, and why the industry is so shamelessly desperate in its attempts to keep it commodified.
Ann Muir, evidently, claimed during her trial that she was suffering from depression, and downloaded the songs not for financial gain but to help out her self-image as a method of recovery. Heartless bootstrappers may scoff at the notion, but it's a good bet that none of them have actually thought about the role that music plays in ordinary people's lives or the nature of depression itself.
To bring it even a little further back into the ether: why do people listen to music? Normally because whatever emotion is related in it--anger, despair, loneliness, joy, elation--resonates with the listener. It's here, in this emotional realm, that songs become simultaneously their least quantifiable and most appreciated. Anyone who had survived truly trying emotional periods in their life can attest to the very real power that music has in providing you with the inspiration to go on.
Bruce Springsteen is, for example, one of these people. He once said that "I know that rock and roll changed my life. It was something for me to hold onto. I had nothing. Before then the whole thing was a washout for me. It really gave me a sense of myself, and it allowed me to become useful, which is what I think most people want to be."
There's a painful irony here. Ann Muir worked in an industry that supposedly exists to take care of human beings, to make them whole again and help them regain a sense of purpose. And yet, when subjected to the forces of the market, her job was nothing more than another line-item. The past few years have seen hospitals shut down, nurses and doctors terminated, patients denied medicine. In short, Ann Muir was told she was expendable. One can't say for sure what lie at the root of her depression, but it's a safe bet that the conditions of her job didn't help.
And yet music, an art-form almost universally accepted as having real bearing on someone's emotional state, was out of legal reach for her. Needless to say, though Muir's emotional state was offered as part of her guilty plea in court, it wasn't taken seriously. Much like Ann Muir herself, music is viewed by the leaders of our society in terms of monetary value before emotional. But it's not Ann Muir who's ultimately worthless or disposable; it's the music industry.