Free and legal

When it comes to downloading music, there has always been a conflict between what is legal and what is affordable.

When it comes to downloading music, there has always been a conflict between what is legal and what is affordable. People once relied on Napster for their cheap music fix, but with the fall of the music download giant came a terrible decision for those unsatisfied with the music they already had: Buy legally at excessive prices or pirate those coveted compositions at the ever-popular price of “free.” There was little to no middle ground, save for mix tapes, free samples and creative commons music.

Multnomah County is partnering with to offer its patrons another option. As of February 2011, anyone with a Multnomah County library card is able to download three songs per week. That adds up to 156 songs per year. There are thousands of songs available, from popular classics to unknown gems. And it is all free and entirely legal. And incredible enough, it is for keeps.

The idea does, of course, have its merits. Libraries already offer music in the forms of CDs, cassette tapes and (in some collections) even records. These are among the most popular items many libraries have to offer, but also some of the most expensive to purchase and retain. CDs especially are often stolen from libraries or damaged by patrons. Shelving and maintaining a library CD collection can be difficult, requiring money and manpower. Offering digital copies of the songs these CDs contain can ease the burden a little.

In addition, the program is bound to bring in traffic for the libraries. While the music can be downloaded from any computer, a card is required. People downloading these songs are bound to consider the other merits of their card. Other libraries already offering the service have found that it increased the popularity of the libraries and resulted in more patrons and more use of other library services. It is its own form of advertising, and it is fantastic publicity.

But what is the cost?

Patrons of the library don’t need to give a second thought to the price of the service to them—like book checkouts, community events and Internet use, the service is complimentary. Simply having a card and PIN allows them to access the music, and there’s no cash exchanged. But they are paying, in a way. And it makes the library vulnerable.

The library is able to offer this service by paying a fee to Freegal for songs downloaded. The rate is reduced with higher volumes of downloads—a result of “buying in bulk,” perhaps. However, prices paid by the library are comparable to those on iTunes or A thousand downloads would cost just over $1 per download. If a patron used every download he or she was afforded over the year, the library would pay more than $160 to Freegal. The Multnomah County library has several thousand patrons. If even a small percentage of them were to utilize the service…well, you can do the math.

Of course, libraries do not charge for their other services or membership; they rely on grants and government money. In other words, the services are paid for by our taxes. While the average citizen is perfectly at ease with their taxes going toward supporting libraries, those tasked with budgeting how federal money is spent are always looking for programs to cut and cutbacks to funding. If the library spends so much of its budget offering something that rivals commercial offerings, it is safe to assume that the program and budget might be brought to question, and the funding might possibly take a hit.

So while the program is great publicity and no doubt going to be very popular, it is not necessarily the smartest decision. The cost of the program is going to be greater than most cardholders realize, and it puts the library at risk of losing funding. Even if the budget remains the same, the program is bound to be costly. There might soon come a reduction in other services offered by the library.

Enjoy the downloads while they last, but don’t expect them to last forever. In a few short years, the program might just go the way of Napster. And then, once again, we will need to choose between purchasing and pirating. ?

Information about downloading MP3s through the library is available at