A few years ago, when a friend offered 15-year-old Evan Collins a compact disc of illegally downloaded music, Collins turned him down flat.
"Me and my parents used to download music for free," said Collins, who lives in Bloomington, Minn. "But we decided it was like stealing from musicians. So I don't take stolen music from friends, either."
But later that year, when Collins met a girl he liked, he made her a CD filled with songs by Linkin Park, Blue Man Group and Eiffel 65. Why was his CD OK, while his friends' were verboten? Because Collins paid for his music in the first place, he said.
"I think you're allowed to make, like, two or three copies of a CD you bought and give them to friends," said Collins. "It's only once you make five copies, or copy a CD of stolen music, that it's illegal."
Actually, attorneys say, copying a purchased CD for even one friend violates the federal copyright code most of the time.
But Collins' attitude — that copying purchased CDs or DVDs is legal, while copying stolen music or movies is a crime — is pervasive among young people ages 12 to 24, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.
Among teens ages 12 to 17 who were polled, 69% said they believed it was legal to copy a CD from a friend who purchased the original. By comparison, only 21% said it was legal to copy a CD if a friend got the music free. Similarly, 58% thought it was legal to copy a friend's purchased DVD or videotape, but only 19% thought copying was legal if the movie wasn't purchased.
Those figures are a big problem for the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, both of which have spent millions of dollars to deter copying of any kind. The music industry now considers "schoolyard" piracy — copies of physical discs given to friends and classmates — a greater threat than illegal peer-to-peer downloading, according to the RIAA.
Similarly, an MPAA spokesperson said that, in the U.S., copying and reproducing DVDs is a bigger problem than illegal downloading of movies.
"We've made substantial progress educating people that downloading copyrighted music for free is illegal," said RIAA Chairman Mitch Bainwol. "But we still confront a significant challenge educating kids that copying a CD for a friend is also a crime. This is a major focus for the entire industry."
Indeed, years of anti-downloading campaigns seem to be working: 80% of teens surveyed in the poll said downloading free music from unauthorized computer networks was a crime. Much of that might stem from highly publicized crackdowns on online music sharing. A 2004 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that close to 6 million Americans said they had stopped downloading unauthorized tunes because of lawsuits filed by the RIAA.
But when it comes to stopping people from copying physical CDs, high-profile lawsuits are much less likely to occur. Prosecutors say it would be next to impossible to get one teen to testify in court that another had slipped him or her a copied disc at lunchtime. And besides, isn't sharing music a time-honored part of teen friendship?
"It's pretty confusing," said Collins, who was interviewed after participating in the poll.
Even lawyers say the law is hard to understand. Distributing free copies of a purchased CD or DVD is only a federal copyright crime if the value of the copied discs exceeds $1,000, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Elena Duarte.
But giving away even one copied disc may be a civil violation or break a state law.
"A strict interpretation of the law says that if making a copy robs the marketplace of a sale, it is prohibited," said attorney Mark Radcliffe, a copyright expert at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. "So anyone giving a copy to a friend could technically be sued. But there is some sentiment that as long as people are only giving copies to families and a few friends, it's probably OK. But how many friends should one person have?"
In the last decade, copyright activists and entertainment companies have battled over that very question. Courts have generally avoided commenting on the appropriateness of copying CDs for friends or how many friends constitutes a copyright violation. But music and film companies have argued that any sharing violates the copyright code.
However, free-speech advocates say the copyright laws were never intended to stop kids from giving mix-CDs to friends. In fact, some say, because music is as much about personal expression as listening pleasure, sharing is integral to why songs have value in the first place.
"At my wedding I handed out about 150 mix-CDs," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor at New York University and author of "Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity."
"I was freeloading on songs by Louis Armstrong and others, but I think that's why they became musicians in the first place," Vaidhyanathan said. "Music has worth because it lets us communicate in ways we can't manage on our own. But to communicate, we have to be able to share."
Some of those polled agree. While 97% of teens and adults polled said they considered shoplifting an item worth less than $20 a crime, fewer of them (83% of teens, 76% of young adults) considered it a crime to buy a bootlegged CD. (In fact, according to Duarte, although selling a bootleg violates the law, purchasing it is not prohibited by the federal copyright code.)
"I rely on my instinct to determine what's right and wrong about sharing music," said Annette Cook, a 21-year-old senior at San Diego State University who participated in the poll. "If my friend makes me a copy of a CD they purchased, it's not really stealing, it's spreading interest in a band. That's how I learn about music I end up buying."
The RIAA and MPAA hopes that attitude will wane. To that end, the recording industry association is sponsoring school programs to convince students that any kind of copying — what they call "songlifting" — is a crime. "Songlifting is like shoplifting, and that means it's wrong," reads a lesson plan the group sent to middle school teachers. The motion picture industry's trade association is also sponsoring school programs to discourage piracy.
Their efforts may be working. Younger poll respondents were more likely than older peers to believe that copying CDs and DVDs breaks the law, and only 25% of teens said they had a friend who illegally downloaded music, compared with 33% of young adults.
"One of my friends always gives me a blank CD for my birthday, and then I go to her house and pick out songs to burn on it," said Charlie Letson, 14, a poll respondent in Hampton, Conn. "But we always download new copies of the songs, so that we're not breaking the law."
Even Evan Collins, the 15-year-old from Minnesota, is beginning to reconsider his position. After the mix-CD he made to woo a classmate failed to impress ("She said 'thanks,' but that was about it," he said), he started rethinking his attitude about copying CDs.
"I used to make two copies of each CD I bought for friends, but I think I'm going to stop doing that," said Collins, who was speaking within earshot of his mother. "I play the piano and the trumpet, so I understand what it's like to be a musician. I don't think it's right to gyp anyone out of making money."
That, says Collins' mother, is music to her ears.
"We've tried to use CD copying to teach bigger lessons about morality," said Jill Collins, 47. "Things are so different now. The Internet makes the world a lot more complicated. If we can get right and wrong down on small things like copying music, hopefully bigger things will be clearer down the road."
Is it stealing?
Younger consumers see strong differences between copying and outright stealing.
Proportion of young people who thought the following would be committing a crime: (Combined minor and serious crime)
Copying a CD from
a friend who paid for it
Copying a DVD/videotape
from friend who paid for it
Downloading free music
from an unauthorized
Downloading free movies
from an unauthorized
Buying a bootlegged CD
Buying a bootlegged
Shoplifting an item
worth less than $20
Shoplifting an item
worth more than $20
Q: Where or how did you first find out about the music you most
Q: How would you describe the type of music you are most passionate about? (One answer, selected answers shown.)
My music tastes range across genres: 27%
My music tastes range across genres: 29%
My music tastes range across genres: 34%
My music tastes range across genres: 31%
My music tastes range across genres: 31%
My music tastes range across genres: 33%
My music tastes range across genres: 42%
My music tastes range across genres: 39%
Note: More information on this poll can be found at: latimes.com/entertainmentpoll
How the poll was conducted
The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll was conducted from June 23 to July 3 using the Knowledge Networks' Web-enabled panel, which provides a representative nationwide sample of U.S. households. Of the 4,466 minors and young adults invited to participate in the survey, 1,904 (43%) responded to the survey, with 1,650 qualifying. The 1,650 qualified respondents included 839 minors (ages 12 to 17) and 811 young adults (ages 18 to 24). The margin of sampling error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In order to provide as representative a sample as possible, the survey results were weighted to U.S. census figures for 12- to 24-year-olds in the United States in terms of age, race or ethnicity, gender and region, and for urban or rural residence and Internet access.
Source: Times/Bloomberg poll
The Entertainment Poll
A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll finds that a large majority of 12- to 24-year-olds are bored with their entertainment choices. Their solution? Even more options. Plus: Busting myths about teens and young adults.
The old Hollywood movie model doesn't interest younger audiences. They want to see films as soon as they come out at home — whether on TV, computer or the next new gadget.
Within the music industry, copied CDs are considered a greater threat than illegal peer-to-peer downloading. But young people are confused about where sharing ends and piracy begins in the era of iTunes.
Is new technology the answer for TV and video? Teens and young adults — the generation most likely to be the early adopters of this new technology — have yet to fully embrace it.
A day in the life of a typical plugged-in tween. Plus: Does multi-tasking hurt homework?
On the Web
Readers weigh in: How has the entertainment industry failed today's young people? Plus, read previous installments of this series. All at latimes.com/entertainmentpoll.