I THOUGHT THAT anything would be better than my early morning Spanish class, but I realized I was wrong on that day two years ago when a campus police officer pulled me out of class to inform me that an FBI agent was waiting for me at my dormitory room.
That was the start of the incident that would become the defining moment of my life so far.
As we drove, with me in the front seat, the officer assured me that it was most likely “not a big deal.” The FBI, which I would later learn maintains its North Carolina office just down the road from my university, comes to campus “all the time.”
There wasn’t just one agent in my dorm room but a team. One stood at the door while another wheeled my computer out on a cart. One wearing a rubber glove dug through my trash while another sorted through my closet.
After sitting me down, the first question of my interview was, Is this the screen name you’ve been using to communicate on the Internet? It was.
In the previous year, I’d joined a private group on the Web whose purpose was sharing free music. In exchange for providing the group with albums, I was given access to a virtual library. In the few months of my membership, I uploaded a handful of CDs. I had no special industry access, so there was very little I could supply that wasn’t already available: albums from local bands without national distribution, free music samplers given out in stores, etc.
I knew it wasn’t right, but the temptation of endless new noise drowned out the ethical whispers. I knew it was illegal, but I never thought I’d face legal troubles. Although my method for obtaining MP3s was different from the common college pirate (who prefers Kazaa, LimeWire, Soulseek or other peer-to-peer systems), the degree of my infringement was similar.
For the authorities to single you out, you have to sell bootlegs, right? Or leak early versions of music before it is publicly available, or something equally serious, right? Wrong.
The series of events in the weeks after the FBI’s visit was as dizzying as it was surreal. I had to find a lawyer; have lengthy, uncomfortable conversations with him in his high-rise office overlooking the city; meet with the dean of students and learn of my punishment on campus (probation, an essay about piracy, exile from student housing and computer labs); and the most intimidating of all: I had to go to the FBI’s office downtown for a video teleconference with higher-ups in Washington.
I’m not even sure who was questioning me while I sat there, twiddling my thumbs and fidgeting with my tie, trying not to look as terrified as I was.
THE WORD TO describe it is “shame.” The shame in realizing I’d been monitored for months, with paper logs of my online conversations; the shame of begging my university dean to allow me to remain a student; the shame of continuing to squander such a significant portion of my family’s savings on legal fees; the shame of pleading with professors to reschedule tests; the shame of desperately searching for landlords on short notice; and, of course, the shame of knowing I’d stolen the property of others like me who are passionate about the art of music.
The other word is “fear.” Fear that keeps me awake at night and distracted in class. Fear of my May sentencing date (I pleaded guilty in March) in the same courthouse as Zacarias Moussaoui; fear of the possible prison time I am facing; fear of my job prospects when I graduate college in December with a felony criminal record; and fear for the future I’ve recklessly damaged.
Everybody wants something for nothing, and I’ve come to learn that “free” music is anything but. The hidden cost is enormous. Although I am unqualified to opine on the price of piracy for the artists whose work is stolen, I can describe the price I’ve paid.
Stealing, no matter how little, or how easy, is never right. There is no justification for downloading music without paying. I’m not just saying this to reduce my sentence; I want to get the message out to young people who might not otherwise understand -- copyright infringement, whether it is buying a bootleg album from a street vendor or downloading a song from the Internet, has very serious consequences.
I regret what I did. I had a lot of music on my PC that I’d never paid for, and now I have an enormous bill I will be paying for years to come. Is piracy worth it? It wasn’t for me.