Radha Roy Biswas

Pirates, diamonds and rust

By Radha Roy Biswas
August 6, 2009

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LAST WEEK I attended a Joan Baez concert in Lowell with a friend. We had both first heard her in high school or college in India - she was a staple on campuses, never mind that her music was two decades older than us. On this summer evening, as I surrendered to “Diamonds and Rust’’ and other songs that sounded richer than I’d ever heard on tape or CD, I went back to the time I discovered Joan Baez, and other music I’ve loved all my life.

It was on a cassette, copied for my brother and me by a friend, from an original cassette that someone else had brought back from a trip to the United States. Back in the ’80s, owning original imported music was a privilege, and much of the Western music in our homes was copied. Friends and family traveling abroad brought back music. They also brought back cellophane-sealed stacks of blank tapes, which were opened and distributed as gifts. We picked the music we wanted to copy, put the two tapes on someone’s tape deck, and the music went around. The blank tapes came with covers on which we wrote the song titles, often in pencil, so that we could erase old favorites and record new ones. We even tried to copy some cover art work from the original. By the time we were done, at least a dozen people had copies from a single original. Then there were copies of copies.

Was it illegal? Was it unethical? We never thought about it. Even if we had, would we have stopped? Music sharing was the only way most of us could get the music.

A Boston college student was recently found guilty of willfully distributing music online despite knowing that it was illegal, and fined $675,000. The fine was much less than the millions that the record companies wanted, but sufficient to drive him to bankruptcy. (The defense had proposed 99 cents a song, which seems more in tune, since it is what he would have paid for them online.) At the verdict, representatives of the recording labels stated they were pleased with the outcome - the jury had confirmed that artists and recording companies deserved to get paid for the work that they put into making the music.

Someone on the defendant’s side protested, “It’s what kids do!’’

I can’t argue with that. Online file sharing does not seem so different from the activity we indulged in so many years ago. But I don’t argue with the guilty verdict either. After all, warnings against copying and distribution are on every CD and DVD.

About the financial damages to recording labels and artists, I am not so sure.

From those first tapes in high school, I carried the music with me when I went on to college and built an ever-growing collection of original tapes. When my husband attended university, he began collecting original CDs, which he got in exchange for tutoring sessions on campus. When he could, he bought at least one every month. More than two decades after those first tapes, my brother is still building out his collection - on his iPod at 99 cents a song. And then there are the tickets that my friends and I have bought for concerts under summer skies like the one last week.

Eventually, it seems, recording labels and artists do collect their dues.

Radha Roy Biswas lives in Littleton.

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