The Internet defines the future of the music community. 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, especially college students, about the negative effects of file sharing. Conflicting data and opinions have caused much debate among the music community concerning whether file sharing is the threat to the future of music that the RIAA and the music industry believe it to be and whether the RIAA’s current campaign is the best way to control file-sharing.
The music community has been revolutionized by the recent popularity and obsession surrounding Internet freedom and technological advances. The mass movement of people to communicate through this new medium has led our country into a digital age of music. Technology has made exchanging and copying music extremely fast, cheap, and readily available, especially on the Internet. The advertisers, artists, and record companies profiting from CD sales are disgruntled by this fast, growing exchange of free copyrighted music. Major record companies, led by the RIAA, are fighting back because they feel that file swapping is a threat to their previously unchecked ability to dominate format changes and availability of merchandise in the music world. Artists in the music community typically vary on whether they feel file sharing should be condemned. Many top-selling artists, such as Britney Spears and Eminem, have offered their full support towards RIAA tactics and disapprove of all illegal file sharing (Digital Age 2). Fledgling artists typically enjoy the ability to distribute their music through file sharing to increase awareness of their songs and create a fan base. 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 a harmless way to discover music. Nevertheless, file-sharing consequences, as seen in recent e-mails to the RMC community, are far-reaching. In a follow-up letter sent to the students in the RMC community early February 2006, a warning from Thomas Copler, the CIO and Director of ITS at RMC, stated: “Be aware that since sending this warning in early January the college has received two additional warnings from the RIAA. The RIAA is obviously taking a closer look this year so everybody needs to be aware of their chances of being tagged for music copyright infringement violation” (Copler 1)!
Whether or not I am affected by the lawsuits personally, the RIAA message has intimidated and affected my file-sharing habits. As a long time participant in file-sharing networks including Napster, Morpheus, Kazaa, Limewire, and WinMx, I have noticed the effects of the RIAA’s legal battles and actions on both the networks’ development and my own downloading habits. Downloading brings files from a central device to a network computer, whereas uploading brings files from a network computer to a central device. I began downloading music while in middle school to burn onto CDs and trade with my neighbor. This habit was propelled by Napster, an exciting new piece of digital technology. I would type in a song, wait for results from the music libraries of thousands or millions of users logged on, identify what appeared to be what I was looking for, wait for the typically slow download, and listen, hoping I didn’t accidentally introduce porn onto my computer. As the RIAA began winning its battle with Napster, the music file names became more and more cryptic. The artists and song names would be spelled incorrectly to throw off the forced removal of all copyrighted major label tracks. During the Summer of 2001, Napster shut down and so did my interest in that particular network. I moved onto a service called LimeWire, which I heard of randomly among the many networks that flourished after Napster’s shut down. However, soon I began hearing about huge fines being directed toward customers by the RIAA. I promptly altered my network settings so that I would not be sharing my own music; in other words, I was not allowing people to download the songs I had collected on my library, but I could still download theirs. Years later, after receiving the RMC letter about college students being targeted by the RIAA, I closed my connection with my most recent network, WinMx, and went back to buying CDs and occasionally purchasing from the iTunes music store.
The technology that launched file sharing exploded onto the music scene with Napster in 1999. Shawn Fanning, the creator of Napster, was simply trying to improve the file swapping he observed in Internet Relay Chats (Kusek 100). He united a large group file-sharers under his new program, who quickly spread the word of his achievement. Once the RIAA took notice of his creation and its huge following, a high profile legal battle took place. The RIAA won the battle in 2001 and had Napster shut down. This, however, did not kill off online music downloading. A new wave of peer-to-peer networks, also known as P2P networks, developed. The newer P2P networks provided a base for computers to transfer files directly from one computer to another, rather than using central servers or directories, which Napster had employed. When the RIAA took P2P services like Grokster and Kazaa to court, the judge ruled that there are legitimate applications for these new P2P networks due to the lack of a central server (Adegoke 1). This ruling ended the RIAA’s opportunity to fight file-sharing by going directly to the source, which caused them to start 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 unfavorable as the RIAA believes. Most observe that there is certainly a redistribution of music profits attributed to the digital revolution. The recording industry estimates that they lose 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). However, the Oberholzer-Strumpf study, which criticized the correlation between declining CDs sales and file sharing, lists several alternative causes for these numbers including: “poor macroeconomic conditions, a reduced number of album releases, growing competition from other forms of entertainment, a reduction in music variety due to radio consolidation, the cost of independent promoter fees to gain airplay, and possibly a consumer backlash against record industry tactics” (Holland 1). Former Sony Music Executive, Steve Grodon, blames the Internet Service Providers and the manufactures of computers, blank optical disks, CD burners, and MP3 players,” all of which are “facilitating unauthorized file sharing and CD burning” (Paying for Music). Nevertheless, 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 the debated study by Dr. Felix Oberholzer-Gee of the Harvard Business School and Dr. Koleman S. Strumpf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, results showed that file sharing had virtually no effect on store compact disc sales. The study “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, and his album sold nine million copies that year (Kusek 41). However, the RIAA claims that the Oberholzer-Strumpf study “contradicts the findings of five other studies of P2P activity conducted in 2002-2003.” The RIAA also suggested that this seventeen week study, which included the Christmas season, is not able to reflect the effects of file sharing over the previous three years (Holland 1).
The Oberholzer-Strumpf results, nevertheless, 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 with 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 music pirates, those opposed to file-sharing make the statistics seem a lot more menacing against online music downloading. This means that the RIAA can present impressive data about music piracy in interviews and articles dealing with file sharing without fear of too many individuals noticing the technical difference.
Despite how one feels about the effects of file-sharing, the campaign against it will most likely continue. As expressed in the letter to RMC students, the lawsuits must be a moneymaker or else the RIAA would not continue to waste its time on this losing battle (Copler 4). 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 former President of Grokster (a newer P2P network), Wayne Rosso, describes it as a “scare and intimidation” tactic that will ultimately fail (Adegoke 2). Shortly after Napster’s downfall, Grokster protected the newer wave of P2P networks by winning its legal battle against the RIAA. 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 of the possible negative results of file sharing (Adegoke 2). Contrary to the RMC letter, there are even those who believe that the separate lawsuits may, indeed, prove “more costly and time-consuming [for the RIAA] than [they] are worth” (O’Rourke 1). If this is true, the music community may see new government laws being passed that will support a different solution.
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 charges were eventually dropped against the grandmother; however, the mother of the 12-years old settled the suit at $2,000. 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. In fact, James Ellis, the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for SBC, the nation’s leader in telecommunications, admitted that “his company has fought 59 subpoenas issued by a distributor of hardcore gay pornography” (Adrianson 3). However, amending the DMCA to have a greater degree of court supervision may cost more and be much more invasive for consumers than a well crafted subpoena process (Adrianson 4). More court supervision would most likely entail filing a lawsuit prior to sending a subpoena.
A larger debate focuses on whether or not the RIAA’s lawsuits and information distribution campaign 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. One technical fix is the Digital Rights Management option, which suggests placing “a special code into digitized media that prevents copying” (Adrianson 4). However, 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. In an interview on NPR, Steve Gordon the former Sony Music executive and current music attorney, explained the advantages of one such blanket license system called the statutory license law trying to be passed through Congress: “Record companies limit the release of millions of older songs, which puts the record company at a severe disadvantage with the unauthorized services that can allow anything…the statutory license triumphs this problem” by permitting the use of all copyright material in exchange for a predetermined payment to the copyright owner (Paying for Music).
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). Legal file-sharing is an important opportunity for the record companies involved. The new option may allow them to regain their ability to control the music industry. Their new hold on the market may already be displaying growing power over consumers and competition. National Public Radio announced that the U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating anti-competitive practices like price-fixing within online music networks for four global music companies. The most successful legal downloading site, Apple iTunes, is using their success to endorse their other products, which gives them an “unprecedented amount of control over the record business and the technology business.” There could be a “tying violation,” applied to Apples’ music sales being linked to Apple technology. A smaller feud is occurring between Apple’s CEO and the music industry about Apple’s refusal to force customers to pay more for hit songs than “B-side songs” (Marketplace Report). These incidents reflect the growing competition within this new market.
Despite these problems, 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. Illegal 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. While using illegal networks, I often had an enormous amount of trouble locating and downloading quality songs.
The most recent stir in legal file sharing news is the launch of the new Napster. Boasting more than one million tracks of music, Napster is being successfully reborn into the online music world through its new parent company, Roxio. In late 2004, Sonic Solutions, the leader in digital media software, announced that “it was acquiring Roxio’s consumer software division for $80 million in cash and common stock.” While, Roxio, having bought the Napster name, will henceforth focus its business “on the digital music distribution market and change its name to Napster” (Nathans 1). Shawn Fanning, Napster’s creator, now has nothing to do with his revolutionary creation. His new project, Snocap, acts as a “digital middleman” within the file sharing community. Rather than directly selling music legally like Apple iTunes, Snocap works with legal file-sharing software, like Mashboxx, by employing a database of copyrighted music: “When a music fan locates a song on another computer in the network, Snocap checks to see if it is registered in its database. If it is, the song can be purchased or listened to five times for free. [If not,] Mashboxx lets the user have it at no charge” (Dell 2). This idea benefits fledgling musicians, while protecting copyrighted music from seasoned artists. Fanning is now becoming the record industry’s best friend and his new program may challenge iTunes’ dominance of this new market (Dell 2).
Whatever the future of file-sharing networks, the digital age has left its mark on the music industry. The data surrounding CD sales amidst file sharing appears to be surrounded by hidden prejudices. However, even among this confusion one can see file sharing is not only sticking around, but growing and developing. The RIAA’s campaign has had an impact on the music community, but whether or not its effects have been useful is still widely debated. It is still doubtful, however, that the other options for suppressing file sharing are superior. Legal online music networks seem to be a source of hope for the music industry amidst the chaotic file sharing debate. These legal networks are gaining popularity and raking in lost profits, but they are also struggling with flaws. The music community must continue to explore and develop a feasible solution to these issues.