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Music Industry Turns Heat on Net Music Pirates

by Stephen Pizzo
05/12/2000

Righteous Cause or a Losing Battle?

It had begun to take on all the trappings of a cause, a movement, even a revolution. Music fans around the world were passing their favorite tunes around over the Net like joints at a frat party. Some 17-year-old college kid had produced a free program that let anyone with MP3 music files share them with other computer users over the Net. Even the name of the program flew right up the noses of the recording industry giants -- Napster.

And then a web site, MP3.com, appeared on the scene. The site's operators had gone out and purchased 80,000 CD albums, ripped them all into MP3 format and put them up on the their site for anyone's listening pleasure.

The music industry trade association, the Recording Institute of America Association (RIAA), went to federal court screaming copyright violation. In April the courts ruled for the RIAA in its lawsuit against MP3.com, and a federal judge has ordered that Napster is to stand trial for copyright infringement.

The once cocky Napster folks are no longer in a talking mood. All attempts to reach them failed. Even their normally chatty PR folks went underground after last week's ruling by San Francisco Federal Judge Marilyn Patel rejecting Napster's contention it was just an innocent bystander.

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It's not surprising since the little upstart of a company had made some powerful enemies. Even the powerful motion picture industry applauded the decision. "The entire spectrum of American creative talent applauds Judge Patel's ruling," stated Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Napster is aiding and encouraging the theft of property and demeaning the concept of copyright."

So, where will it end?

A solution may not be as far out of reach as all the current bitterness and bickering make it seem. The solutions are actually straightforward:

  1. The SDMI working group needs to get off the dime and to move at Net-speed this time. They need to get SDMI Version 1.0 out there and soon.
  2. Then they need to work with Netscape and Microsoft to get those new standards integrated as soon as possible into browsers -- the same way search engines and chat clients are combined already.
  3. Finally, the recording industry needs to move quickly to a lower-cost, higher-volume business model online. They need to charge less and offer choice -- 20 cents a track rather than $20 a CD, for example.

Once consumers are given an easy, seamless way to surf the net and grab music files at a price that will discourage piracy and encourage consumption, the whole fight will end right there and then. Those who charge that the music industry has been overcharging for CDs found a powerful supporter in the U.S. Department of Justice which accused the record companies of colluding to inflate CD prices. On May 10 the Justice Department announced it had reached an agreement with the major labels -- an agreement that they say should result in lower CD prices.

What about pirates? There will always be pirates. How many people continue to copy movies despite that big FBI WARNING! message? But now that movies can be rented for as little a $1, it's hardly worth the effort. The vast majority of consumers have no interest in stealing anything and understand that the artists they love need to make a living too. Even the folks who started this fight agree with that point.

"Napster has always said that the company will adopt the SDMI standards when they are approved," said Napster attorney Laurence Pulgram. "Those standards should accommodate both those artists who want to have secure digital recordings and those who want their works freely distributable. But for now those standards do not exist."

For the time being the battle between the recording industry and small Internet companies like Napster will leaves fans -- like the 335,000 Napster users caught in the Metallica sting -- caught in the crossfire. And for those who want to download free music an appropriate choice might be "Can't Get No, Satisfaction" - (© The Rolling Stones.)

Stephen Pizzo is an award-winning non-fiction author, and newsman for the O'Reilly Network.


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