The future of the music community is hooked up to the Internet. Online music downloading is rapidly gaining popularity and appears to be here to stay. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has launched a two pronged campaign in order to dissuade growing numbers of illegal file swapping and other online copyright infringements. Their most recent method of discouraging file sharers has included individual law suits against heavy sharers and sending out the message to parents and network users about the negative effects of file sharing. Conflicting data and opinions have caused much debate among the music community as to whether or not file sharing is the threat to the future of music that the RIAA and the music industry believe it to be and whether or not there is a better way to control file-sharing than the RIAA’s current campaign.
The recent catapult into the digital age of music has revolutionized the music community. Recent technology has made exchanging and copying music extremely fast, cheap, and available. Those that profit from CD sales are disgruntled by this fast, growing exchange of free copyrighted music. Major record companies, led by the RIAA, are fighting back, feeling that file swapping is a threat to their ability to dominate format changes and availability of merchandise. The RIAA’s campaign does not necessarily benefit the artists themselves. Artists in the music community typically vary on how extensive file sharing should be condemned. Some top-selling artists, such as Britney Spears and Eminem, have offered their full support towards RIAA tactics (Digital Age 2). The music loving community, otherwise viewed as the music consumers, has a wide rage of opinions on the matter. Many file sharers view their habit as harmless and a way to discover music. Nevertheless, file-sharing consequences, as seen in recent e-mails to the RMC community, are far-reaching. Whether or not we are affected by the lawsuits personally, the RIAA message does intimidate and affect many file-sharing habits. I have indulged in file-sharing networks since the birth of Napster and over the years I have noticed the effects of the RIAA’s legal battles and actions in both the networks’ development and my own downloading habits.
When the technology that launched file sharing exploded onto the music scene with Napster, file-sharing users and newer networks boomed. Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster, was simply trying to improve the file swapping he observed in Internet Relay Chats (Kusek 100). Once the RIAA took notice of his creation, a high profile legal battle took place. The RIAA, of course, won the battle in 2001 and had Napster shut down. This, however, did not kill off online music downloading. A new wave of networks, called peer-to-peer networks or P2P, developed. When the RIAA took P2P services like Grokster and Kazaa to court, the judge ruled that there are legitimate applications for P2P networks due to the lack of a central server which Napster functioned on (Adegoke 1). This ruling ended the RIAA’s opportunity to fight file-sharing by going directly to the source, which caused them to take up filing lawsuits against individual network users. Their targets were so-called “supernodes” or “significant uploaders of pirated music” (Adrianson 2). This decision launched a popular and extensive controversy relating to many aspects of file-sharing.
A large part of this debate has centered around the question of whether or not file-sharing is as bad as the RIAA believes. Most observe that there is certainly a redistribution of music profits attributed to the digital revolution. The recording industry estimates to loose around “$4.2 billion to piracy worldwide every year” (Engleman 1). Shipments of recorded music have reportedly “dropped by 26% since 1999” (Not-so-Jolly 1). According to the RIAA, the increase in piracy may also account for significant drops in the top selling album sales. The data shows that “the 10 top selling albums of 2000 accounted for 60 million sales in the United States while the10 top-selling albums of 2002 accounted for just 34 million comparable sales. The record industry’s total sales have also fallen from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $12.6 billion in 2002” (Adrianson 2). The recording industry supporters argue that the upholding of copyright laws ensures that the artists and producers continue to make a profit, which essentially preserves the music market.
Others perceive file sharing not as an interference with industry profits, but as an opportunity for development within the music industry in more than one way. In a debated study by researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, results showed:
after comparing download data from file-sharing providers with store compact disc sales, one has little or no effect on the other…in the worst case scenario it might take 5,000 downloads to reduce the sales of an album by a single copy…Researchers have even found that for albums with sales over 600,000 copies, every 150 downloads actually increases sales by one copy. (O’Rourke 1)
In fact, 50 Cent’s songs were among the top illegal downloads of 2003, yet his album sold nine million copies. These kind of findings support theories that file-sharing is actually “the most successful and direct form of product sampling ever invented” (Kusek 100). The Internet allows people to navigate through musical selections and explore numerous genres that offline venues will probably never be able to present so readily. Mark Katz demonstrates this in his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by searching on a file-sharing network for two obscure genres: Swedish funk and Vietnamese hardcore rap. He quickly is presented with the “Electric Boys, a Stockholm quartet formed in 1988… [and] their album Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride,” as well as the “California-based Vietnamese group inexplicably known as Thai” (166). Another point brought up by those concerned by negative file-sharing portrayals is the fact that the words “piracy” and “file-sharing” are often confused. Piracy is typically referred to as “the activities of organized criminals who manufacture illegal copies of CDs, DVDs, tapes, and records, then photocopy the covers and sell the illicit product on the streets for a steep profit” (Kusek 41). File-sharers are typically “serious music enthusiasts who lack any compelling commercial alternative to getting their need for music filled” (Kusek 42). In lumping file-sharers with the organized crime of pirates, the statistics get a lot more menacing against online music downloading.
Despite how one feels about the effects of file-sharing, the campaign against it will nevertheless continue. Since beginning their individual lawsuits, the RIAA has sued thousands of Americans with settlements averaging around $3,000 (Engleman 1). Is this the best way to combat millions of downloaders? Those who oppose the RIAA’s tactics have found several problems in their technique. Many see directly attacking the consumers as a risky move in and of itself. The President of Grokster, Wayne Rosso describes it as a “scare and intimidation” tactic that will ultimately fail (Adegoke 2). Many take the stance that the RIAA will never be able to combat 57 million Americans (and millions more foreign file-sharers), however their methods may raise awareness (Adegoke 2). The separate lawsuits may, indeed, prove “more costly and time-consuming than [they] are worth” (O’Rourke 1). Others complain about the invasion of privacy associated with revealing network identities. The RIAA uses the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which allows “a special administrative subpoena procedure” to be carried out for “any Internet account holder suspected of unauthorized trading of copyrighted material” (Adrianson 3). Two separate incidents, in which the RIAA used the DMCA, resulted in lawsuits against a retired grandmother and the mother of a 12-year old girl. These incidents have tarnished their public relations image and given their policies a harsh edge. The DMCA itself is also a subject of privacy debates, as it is subject to substantial abuse by people and organizations with potentially dangerous or inappropriate motives for accessing people’s identities. However, amending this act to have a greater degree of court supervision may cost more and be much more invasive for consumers (Adrianson 4).
A larger debate focuses on whether or not this method is more productive than other restrictive policy options. One option is the “technical fix,” which means that a technical solution will be designed to avoid unauthorized copying. The Digital Rights Management option suggests placing “a special code into digitized media that prevents copying” (Adrianson 4). If knowledgeable pirates overcame the protective codes, all digital media players would have to be fixed to play only media with a DRM code. Therefore, these technological fixes may restrict innovation and place boundaries much more than the RIAA’s current policy. Another option would be to adopt a blanket license system, which “could authorize copyrighted material to be traded on the networks while providing compensation for the artists and the record labels,” much like the radio licensing system (Adianson, 5). Some P2P networks, such as Grokster, are pushing for this solution. One of the current successful options is to expand and exploit the online music market by developing legal downloading networks like Apple iTunes, Emusic.com, and Listen.com, which typically offer songs for 99 cents each. The RIAA states that the simultaneous development of this legal market and the abundance of lawsuits was no accident. Jonathan Lamy, a spokesperson for the RIAA, explained, “‘The idea is to bring [illegal file-sharing] down to a level of control where legitimate services can get a foothold in the marketplace and eventually flourish’” (Adrianson 6).
The future of file-sharing may progress towards legal options if record companies take full advantage of the online market. Even the RIAA agrees that file-sharing is here to stay. Mark Katz displayed several reasons as to why someone would want to pay for downloaded music in his book, Capturing Sound. P2P file-sharing networks are wracked with flaws and annoyances that many people are probably willing to give up for a small fee. Legal downloading networks have the appeal of ease, speed, reliability, quantity, quality, permanence, additional resources or services, the possibility of directly benefiting the musicians, and, of course, they are legal (Katz 183). As a seasoned file-sharer myself, I will attest to the enormous relief that legal networks bring to the downloading system. With illegal networks I often had an enormous amount of trouble locating and downloading quality songs. Despite this business opportunity, the article “Not-so-Jolly Rogers” points out that it still “looks as if the music industry will also resort to old-fashioned consolidation and cost-cutting to preserve profits” (2). Whatever the future of file-sharing networks, the digital age has left its mark on the music industry.