Rough Trade

Little Johnny and Big-Biz Music Duke It Out Over Peer-to-Peer Software

You have to be pretty desperate to attack your industry's most enthusiastic potential customers, especially in the middle of an economic downturn. But that's exactly what National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences president Michael Greene did with his already infamous speech at last month's Grammy Awards, transcribed at the official Grammys Web site as "The Insidious Virus of Illegal Music Downloading." Everyone in the music business is panicking over the peer-to-peer file-trading software that's been springing up. Napster was containable, but its successors aren't.

The last few weeks have seen even more shake-ups. The baby Naps KaZaA and Morpheus are at each other's throats, the Napster case's judge called the major labels' ownership of music copyrights into question, and musicians have been complaining that the big labels' official alternatives to peer-to-peer systems are unfair. Greene took the industry's frustrations out on fans, raging against "musical dreams haplessly snared in this World Wide Web of theft and indifference." Metallica and Dr. Dre's lawyer Peter Paterno put it less floridly in The New York Times: "If I were in charge, I would put viruses everywhere on these services. That would stop Little Johnny from stealing this stuff."

Jeff Harris is one of those "Little Johnnys." A 20-year-old sophomore at Columbia, he currently has 1300 MP3s on his week-old computer, and he's been downloading them since 1996 (at one point, he had around 3000). He buys CDs less than once a month these days, he says, although he's purchased a bunch based on files he downloaded—the Strokes, Blur, Heart, Bauhaus—and many of his MP3s are copied from CDs he owns, which makes them legitimate. Jeff has heard of people downloading entire albums and burning them onto CD-Rs, but he's never done it himself.

Downloading aficionado Jeff Harris: "I'm not sure if the RIAA understands what the music industry should really be about."
photo: Jesse James
Downloading aficionado Jeff Harris: "I'm not sure if the RIAA understands what the music industry should really be about."

"I try not to think of the moral implications," he says. "But I'm not sure if the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] understands what the music industry should really be about. I think the free downloading of music will take the focus off the recorded format, and put it back on live music." A friend of his down the hall runs an FTP server with hundreds of Dave Matthews Band concerts (the group allows fans to record and trade its live shows for free). Harris is especially annoyed by the new wave of copy-protected CDs that don't play in computers: "I like to own the actual physical object, and also to be able to take [the music] with me or play it on any system."

The official music-downloading services that two major-label coalitions have launched, pressplay and MusicNet, don't give Harris what he's looking for. They offer streaming and downloadable files for a monthly fee, though not in the standard MP3 format; pressplay also offers very limited CD-burning capabilities for an extra fee. "Oh, Lord," Harris says with a laugh. "Well, it's nice to know that they're not doing it correctly, and therefore it'll fail."

MP3 trading is a pretty simple concept. Music files take up a lot of room on CDs, but they can be converted, or "ripped," into the much smaller MP3 format. If you want to share your MP3s with friends or strangers, you put them into a "shared folder" on your hard drive. Peer-to-peer programs let you see what other Internet users have in those folders; if you find something you want, you can download it directly from your fellow user's drive.

A year ago, "peer-to-peer" was more or less a synonym for Napster: Shawn Fanning's small, brutally efficient program spawned a gigantic legal brouhaha over the widespread copyright infringement it fostered. The music-business lawsuit that shut down Napster's original service last year left a void that dozens of other companies rushed to fill—including the five major record labels themselves.

Obviously, a huge demand for downloading applications existed, and a centralized index of unlicensed files like Napster's wouldn't fly legally. But as California's appeals-court ruling on A&M Records v. Napster last February noted, "To enjoin simply because a computer network allows for infringing use would . . . potentially restrict activity unrelated to infringing use." In other words, the network itself was legal. On the same principle, VCRs are kosher even though they can record and duplicate copyrighted TV programming.

While the legal issues are sorted out, all the players are watching their language carefully. If you're pro-trading, upstart companies like KaZaA and WinMX provide "programs," which are innocent; if you're anti-trading, they're "services," which are malign. Most of the current generation of file-trading systems are built on "distributed networks," in which each computer looks for others running the same program and compares shared files, without relying on a central index. Theoretically, these networks can't be shut down, since there's no way to turn them off—and, often, no central site to sue. Some of them don't seem to be quite as distributed as they let on, though: When the Fast Track network upgraded its operating software a few weeks ago, it shut out the popular Morpheus system, whose owners hadn't paid their licensing bills. (Morpheus has subsequently switched over to Gnutella, an "open source" network whose software's code is free for all to use.)

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