Auricle: Music Discovery and Discourse

On my mind: Napster Facts

An excellent, highly opinionated Metafilter discussion on Napster filtering raises the issue of looking at the situation objectively.

Hard facts exist behind the Recording Industry Association of America's heavy assualt on Napster's file-sharing liberties. And the facts say this:

1. Musicians, as all artists, are entitled to copyright their works. A copyright ensures that no one will copy said work without authorized permission from the rights holder. Napster, of course, obliterates that.

2. The RIAA, representing many copyright holders, views Napster as an infringement on copyright. This is a correct assumption, and this is why Napster is staring down a court injunction. Whatever counterarguments users and Napster can present, people swapping files are indeed breaking copyright law.

3. No one has proven that file-sharing is a detrimental practice. For all its bluster, the RIAA has only chosen to ignore the fact that sales of new compact discs rose significantly last year despite heavy Napster use. The RIAA claims singles sales have declined, but singles sales have been flat since the major labels phased out 45s.

What most Napster users and fans tend to ignore is that the RIAA is, under current law, correct. By swapping files they might otherwise have purchased, Napster users are getting something for nothing. This deprives the RIAA's constituents -- labels, songwriters and musicians all -- of the financial benefit they have come to expect. Regardless of the supposed benefits and advantages, Napster users are guilty as charged.

However, the RIAA, by attacking the most blatant symptom of its problem, is not solving the problem itself.

The RIAA is running scared -- rightly so -- and its chasing after Napster may ultimately prove futile. The proverbial cat is out of the bag, and if Napster disappears, plenty of other file-swapping programs will likely take its place.

Historically, distributors of creative property rebel against new technology that shifts their paradigms. Record labels once wanted reimbursement for allowing radio stations to broadcast their music. The film industry expected videocasette recorder sales to destroy movie-ticket sales. The same patterns apply to the music industry's view of Napster and its ilk: Why will consumers pay for something they can get for free?

The answer lies within the products themselves. Many Napster users find new music and ultimately buy the CD at retail. Fans want liner notes, cover art, hidden tracks, multimedia. They want to see and hear their bands perform live. They trade music because they want to share; swapping music exposes people to new sounds and only leads to increased musical awareness and consumerism.

The RIAA is missing a golden opportunity, and years may pass before it catches up to the system that is moving forward. All it may take is some creative thinking: How about a pay fan site, like paying for a fanzine produced by the band? How about the purchase of a retail CD giving an inside scoop or a discount to a live ticket? How about selling CDs at a discount to people who have sampled MP3s off the album, and tracking album sales?

None of these suggestions will solve the problem at hand, which, to the RIAA, is the unauthorized, unpaid distribution of its copyrighted project. But in winning its battle with Napster, the RIAA has done little to advance its troops in the digital market war. The end result won't be known for years, and don't be surprised if the major labels wind up on top. But the system will likely be changed for good.

The Napster legal affair is only the beginning of the battle for digital rights. The next few years should be even more fascinating.

March 7, 2001


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