On Music Sharing

Terry Gray

15 Mar 2002

While most of the country is preoccupied (not without cause) with the war on terrorism, some may not have noticed that there is another war going on: the war the record industry has declared on their customers. It's a war that pits a traditional monopoly against a well-equipped guerrilla army: the music lovers.

The battle ground is that of intellectual property rights, the rules that govern what people can do with --in this case-- a piece of music they didn't write. There are a spectrum of opinions. At one end we have the anti-establishment view that unlimited sharing "among friends" is protected by the "fair use" doctrine mentioned in the 1976 copyright law. At the other end of the spectrum we have the anti-consumer view that the rights *holder* (not to be confused with the author or creator) must be able to control every dimension of use, with the ultimate goal of a pay-per-listen royalty model. Surely the Right Answer is somewhere in the middle, yes?

Both extremes view technology as their salvation: the Internet to facilitate sharing, and encryption to inhibit sharing. In fact, technology has a poor track record for solving social problems, even though there are plenty of examples of technological arms races by various adversarial groups.

Both sides of the media rights battle have surveys "proving" that either Internet file sharing has destroyed the music business or, alternatively, saved it by providing a new marketing tool. As usual, there are three sides to every story: "yours, mine, and the facts". And I don't know what the facts really are... but I'm pretty sure the record industry is mis-counting me as one of the their target customer/criminals who have chosen to steal music via the Internet rather than buy it.

Personally, I have stopped buying CDs... but not because I'm stealing anyone's music.

Really? Isn't it because Napster, Morpheus, etc, have rendered CDs obsolete? Or triggered a social revolution redefining the boundary between "theft" and "sharing"?

Nope, I've never used them. Not yet, anyway. Never seemed quite right, even though the ability to find out-of-print material or non-infringing material seems like a Wonderful Thing.

Must be something else.

Is it because the cost of CDs keeps going up?

Is it because CDs cost twice as much as the same content on cassette, even though the CDs cost much less to manufacture?

Is it because I keep reading stories about how little of the CD revenue actually goes to the artists?

Is it because of the move by the industry to copy protect CDs?

It's all of those things, but especially the last one. I'm really annoyed that the industry thinks I'm a criminal when I'm not. I'm really annoyed that they want to eliminate even the minimal fair-use rights that almost everyone agrees are reasonable, like being able to create my own "mix" of tracks from CDs I've purchased, and play them on whatever device I choose. (Same applies to time/space-shifting of video content). I really do feel like the industry has declared war on me. I probably won't resort to "Internet music sharing" myself, but I'm starting to root for those who do.

I'm really tired of reading accounts of one music or movie executive after another getting up before crowds or congressional committees and blaming the Internet for creating a generation of thieves. I'm not happy about college kids not knowing right from wrong either, but I think those executives should look in the mirror to find a culprit. Technology always has been and always will be a two-edged sword. It is best understood as a magnifier or accelerator of social trends or conflicts, not the creator of them. Answer this: What industry has the most influence on contemporary mores? Who should be accountable for undermining so-called "traditional values"? And what gives that industry the right to use the transgressions of some as an excuse to take away the rights of the rest of us?

Yep, there's another war going on. I'm one of its casualties. If sanity ultimately prevails and the media moguls back off from their "customers are criminals" business model, then I'll be delighted to start buying CDs again. Until then, count me out. But don't count me among the "thieves" used to justify these tactics.