ANALYSIS: Weekly Web Watch - The public wants its MP3s, and the music industry can’t stop it

Every day, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of songs by established recording artists are illegally transmitted over the Internet - illegal because the people receiving the music have not paid for it.

Every day, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of songs by established recording artists are illegally transmitted over the Internet - illegal because the people receiving the music have not paid for it.

Every day, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of songs by

established recording artists are illegally transmitted over the

Internet - illegal because the people receiving the music have not paid

for it.



Hundreds of artists, record labels and music distributors are being

duped out of money that, legally, they are entitled to.



That is why the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has

been spending more time in the courts than in the studios over the past

two years. First it sued Diamond Multimedia in a vain attempt to get the

Rio portable MP3 player banned from store shelves. That’s where things

stood the last time this column looked at online music distribution. And

look at what has happened since then. There are now dozens of copycat

devices on sale, all allowing their owners to go running, ride the

subway or walk to school listening to music they have downloaded over

the Internet.



Even Sony has gotten in on the act. The lure of people chanting ’I want

my MP3’ was just too great to resist.



Then the RIAA turned its attention to MP3.com. The company legitimately

sells recordings online in MP3 format, but what brought the ire of the

recording industry is the my.MP3.com service that gives people access to

MP3 copies of CDs they already own. Since it is legal for people to copy

recordings they have paid for, the service is completely legal, says

MP3.com.



But an online database of professionally copied music will make illegal

distribution even easier, says the RIAA. That’s especially true once the

files start being swapped using something like Napster, software that

allows users to find other people online who have copies of songs they

want. That, says the RIAA, is a tool for rampant copyright

violation.



Exactly, says Napster, the company that makes the software. It’s a

tool.



But tools don’t break the law, people do. Suing the company that makes

the software is like suing Xerox because people make illegal copies of

books.



To say that things like my.MP3.com and Napster are popular would be an

understatement. Napster is so popular that some universities and ISPs

have banned its use not because of copyright violations but because

their bandwidth is completely soaked up by music swapping.



And that’s precisely where the RIAA’s problem lies. It’s not that people

are breaking the law, it is that they are doing it in huge numbers,

joyfully, and with the full intention of breaking the law again and

again. And it’s not just ordinary Net users. AOL, never a company to

miss out on a populist move, is about to integrate an online digital

music storage service uncannily similar to my.MP3.com into its Spinner

and WinAmp music divisions.



It is hard to think of an industry that people feel less sorry for.

They’ve seen it all before, starting with the ’home taping is killing

music’ campaign of the ’70s. Then the entertainment industry tried to

get VCRs banned, and video sales are now one of the mainstays of the

movie industry.



The record industry is spending its money on lawyers when every battle

it might win in the courts will be nullified both by public opinion and

new technologies enthusiastically embraced by people who want their

music anyway they can get it. Ever heard of King Canute, the Viking king

who thought he could control the tides?



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