No Trust

Congress and movie star dance the anti-download bolero

You can say this much for Canadians: They know that the Recording Industry Association of America's power stops at the border. The Copyright Board of Canada ruled on December 12 that making personal copies of music files—no matter where they came from—is legal, although manufacturers of MP3 players will be required to charge a tariff of up to $25 a 'Pod to compensate songwriters and performers. In the meantime, the Canadian music publishing organization SOCAN is agitating for Canadian ISPs to pay them a flat annual royalty, on the grounds that, well, everybody downloads music anyway.

Down south in the States, everybody's still downloading music anyway (as illustrated on the cynical but very funny anti-CDs-for-Christmas site whatacrappypresent.com). But our legislative bodies are a lot cozier with the entertainment industry—Bradley Buckles is leaving his job as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms at the beginning of January to run the RIAA's anti-piracy division.

The RIAA's pocket is becoming a cozy bipartisan hangout. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) recently proposed the Artists' Rights and Theft Prevention Act, which would make it a felony to put not-yet-released recordings (or films that haven't yet been released on video) on a publicly accessible computer network, with prison terms of up to three years attached. (It would also authorize up to three years in the slammer for using a camcorder in a movie theater.) And—here's the kicker—it would presume that the movie or recording in question was copied at least 10 times, simply because it was on a network, whether or not anybody actually downloaded it.

Feinstein and Cornyn announced the bill at a November 13 press conference at which they were joined by RIAA chairman Mitch Bainwol, MPAA president Jack Valenti, and Bo Derek, who's evidently bummed about all those file traders who kept Malibu's Most Wanted from being a box office blockbuster. Coincidentally, according to opensecrets.org, entertainment was the fourth-largest industrial supporter of Feinstein's 2000 campaign.

The ART Act, as it's known ("ARTP" sounds too much like spitting), was formally introduced November 22, the same day as Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) Feinstein-and-Cornyn-co-sponsored Enhancing Federal Obscenity Reporting and Copyright Enforcement Act of 2003. Hatch's pitch for the "EnFORCE Act" is that it will let the music industry "provide consumers with . . . innovative products and services," and incidentally will "protect our children from perverts and pedophiles on the Internet." The key bit of EnFORCE is a seemingly innocuous passage: "Section 115(c)(3)(B) of title 17, United States Code, is amended in the first sentence by striking 'under this paragraph' and inserting 'under this section.' "

What this translates to in reality is that, under current law, music copyright owners (including record companies) are exempt from antitrust laws in setting royalty rates for "phonorecords" (i.e., CDs). EnFORCE expands that exemption in dramatic but vague ways. Essentially, it's meant to protect the RIAA from antitrust lawsuits like the one the Webcaster Alliance recently filed, alleging that anti-competitive behavior by the big labels was meant to drive small webcasters out of business. (The protecting-the-children stuff seems to be in the bill basically to guarantee that a vote against it is a vote for pedophilia.)

Meanwhile, independent musicians have lost a high-profile Internet resource. Until December 2, a quarter-million unknown artists had songs on MP3.com, free for the plucking. Vivendi Universal bought the site back in mid 2001 and made extensive use of its technology, but had no use for 1.6 million nonhit songs; it recently sold MP3.com to CNET, which shut it down and dumped all of its content. The front page is currently filled by a placeholder announcing that there'll be some kind of music thing there eventually, and that the CNET-owned download.com will have an artist-services site opening next year.

The loss is more symbolic than real. MP3.com wasn't all that important anymore: Storage and bandwidth costs have dropped so far in the last few years that it now makes more sense for most Web-savvy musicians to set up their own sites than to go through a big, cluttered clearinghouse. But MP3.com's huge, egalitarian giveaway—its sense of 250,000 artists sharing their voices freely—now seems like a relic of an earlier Internet, before songs cost a buck apiece and were all controlled by paranoid corporations. Everybody's still downloading music anyway, but now Americans have yet another reason to think longingly of the Great White North.

 
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