Ethics, Prudence, and Music Fees

It’s important to separate prudential advice from ethical advice. I was reminded of this simple fact by one of the interested parties in this debate over whether hair salons in Canada should have to pay fees for playing music (i.e., for “public” performance of that music).
Here’s the story: Hairdressers must pay to play music, SOCAN says

Canadian hair salons are being asked to pay for the right to play music in their businesses, said SOCAN, the umbrella group for Canadian music composers.
The performing rights organization for music in Canada has sent out notices to hair salons across the country, urging them to pay a licensing fee or face legal action.
The law has always required that barbers and hairdressers pay to play music CDs, MP3s or other formats in public, said Serge Boutros, a SOCAN customer operations manager.

I saw a brief debate on TV last night, between a SOCAN rep and a hairdresser. The worst argument the hairdresser came up with was basically, ‘look, don’t you music people realize that hairdressers are trend-setters…we’re advertising your music in our salons, so you shouldn’t be charging us for it!’ I’ve heard a version of this same argument from students as to why it’s ethically OK to download pirated music: they tell me the record companies should get hip & realize that giving music away free is good for business. This bad argument raises two good rules of thumb:
1) Never assume that a multi-billion dollar industry is “simply being stupid” (and hence needs your advice on how to run their business); and
2) Never confuse advice about what would be smart for someone to do with advice about what they’re ethically justified in doing. Free-music advocates might well be right that the music industry is being dumb. But that’s the industry’s problem, and it doesn’t change (one way or the other) the answer to whether they’re entitled to enforce their intellectual property rights.

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