Why pay for MP3s, when you can P2P?

Mp3 player headphones on a keyboard

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: You don't ever want to get a letter from a media company ordering you to cease-and-desist your illegal downloading. Trust me. Not that I'd ever do such a thing.

But certain members of my household think it's downright silly to pay for things you can get online for free. Like Season Four of "Friday Night Lights" before it aired on NBC. And in fact, if you turn the argument on its head, why are millions of people still paying for the same music and movies they could get for free?

It's a question that prompts us to ask...

Comedian:What the hell were you thinking?

What were you thinking? Our look at why we do what we do with our money. Joel Rose explores the decision to pay or pirate.


JOEL ROSE: My friend Katie went to college in the late 1990s, when just about everyone she knew was using Napster, or something like it, to download music. But Katie never did.

Katie: It's simplistic to just sort of go to the do-not-steal defense. But I do feel like when I see people downloading music illegally, I get the same kind of feeling in my stomach or my psyche or whatever it is that happens if I see somebody stealing.

Katie still doesn't have to look very far to see someone downloading music without paying for it: her husband, Al.

Al: Well the equation for me at this point is I have more time than money.

Al has accumulated thousands of MP3s over the years -- from hip-hop to obscure surf rock from the 1950s. He thinks record labels ripped consumers off for decades. So he doesn't feel a lot of remorse about their current woes.

Al: The reason THAT we have this predicament, right, is because information is sort of naturally fighting to be free. It's naturally trying to escape the gatekeepers.

Katie: Maybe that's why you don't have that feeling of guilt that I have. Because that's underlying your sort of logic?

Al: Yeah, that's good, that's good, Dr. Freud.

Neither Al nor Katie seems all that worried about the legal consequences. Of course, they don't want us to use their last names, because they know the recording industry spent years suing people for illegal downloading. But in the end, those lawsuits haven't done much to alter their behavior.

Al: I think it's about the same as being afraid of being struck by lightning. You weigh the risks, and you move forward, I guess.

Jean-Francois Ouellet: If you think that there's not much chance that you'll be caught, it's not necessarily a factor that will make someone change their behavior.

Jean-Francois Ouellet teaches marketing at HEC Montreal. He says there are some consumers who always pay for music, and others who never pay. And in between, there are lots of listeners who decide on a case-by-case basis.

Ouellet: It's all about how people feel about the artist. People will download for free whatever music comes from the big-ticket artists, such as U2 or Madonna, for example. But when it comes to local artists, usually they'll say that those people are worth encouraging.

But the whole notion of collecting MP3 files on your computer or iPod may soon go the way of the 8-track. That's because streaming services like Rhapsody and Pandora are gaining in popularity. These are companies that store millions of songs on their hard drives. Listeners can access them online through their computers and mobile phones.

Eliot Van Buskirk: If that can convince people to pay a certain number of dollars per month for a service like that that stores everything in the proverbial cloud, the industry would actually make a lot more money.

Eliot Van Buskirk blogs about the music business at Wired.com. He says consumers have shown they want access to lots of music, even on their mobile devices. And some may be willing to pay a monthly fee for it.

Van Buskirk: Both purchasing and stealing music will become seen as a waste of disc space in the best-case scenario for the industry.

Streaming may work for some consumers. My friend Katie says she would think about it. But Al, not so much. He's wants to be sure he can play his songs wherever and whenever he wants.

Al: I like having a copy and being able to use it in whatever way I want. I want it for myself.

He just doesn't want to, you know, pay for it.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace Money.

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