Nature versus nurture versus Napster

I don’t know about you, but when I was 12 years old, hunched over a stereo system in hopes of capturing songs from the radio on a cassette, I didn’t consider myself a pirate. Unfortunately, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) did.

The RIAA’s main goal is to protect the corporate interests of the recording industry from people like you and me. Back in the early 1970s, the RIAA tried to get a federal judge to declare cassette tapes illegal because they were being used to copy albums, a process they claimed would lead to the death of the industry. All the industry goons got for their troubles was something called a “fair use” clause, which states that as long as people use the cassette tapes for their own enjoyment instead of profiting from the sale of copied cassettes, all is well in the eyes of the courts.

Fast forward to January 1999, when two college freshmen create a file-sharing program to give their friends better access to recorded music by allowing them to download MP3 files from the World Wide Web. It’s called Napster, and its creators, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, opened a real can of electronic worms when they took their dorm-room creation out into the business world.

That’s right, the good ol’ RIAA started looking for a friendly judge to beat down the new technology before all the corporate earnings disappeared. They called Fanning and Parker “electronic pirates,” and they enlisted the help of some of their wage slaves, recording artists such as Metallica and Dr. Dre to cry “Woe is me” about possible missing royalties to anybody within earshot.

This time out, the RIAA seems to be succeeding. On June 13, the RIAA, with the assistance of the Motion Picture Association of America, filed an injunction against the program in hopes of shutting it down for good. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel is currently considering the request.

Last May, Judge Patel ruled that Napster was not entitled to “safe harbor” under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because it doesn’t “… transmit, route, or provide connections for allegedly infringing material through its system.” In other words, Napster doesn’t exactly provide a place where information is exchanged; it provides a forum for people to start the file-exchanging themselves without the help of a service provider. Napster acts like the friend at a party who helps the awkward couple make a connection and then backs out of the conversation.

This ruling separates Napster from other service providers, such as America Online and Microsoft, which helped get the copyright act passed to protect themselves from illegal actions of anonymous computer users. It also cuts them off in other ways not yet understood by the still-expanding high-tech industry, and it is perhaps the largest battle left to be fought in upcoming years — the war over information and its dissemination.

It’s a battle akin to Renaissance Germany in the mid-15th century, when Johann Gutenberg pieced together the moveable-type printing press. Like the digital information age, it recrafted the world, reshaped its parameters, and changed forever the ability of humans to access ideas.

But today’s inventors have enemies much more powerful than a few out-of-work transcription monks. The digital glitterati have multinational corporations with which to contend, and these bigwigs can’t afford to let their traditional business model go the way of the brontosaur. They are trying to come up with a stopper large enough to plug the digital revolution just long enough for them to discover a way to profit from it.

If you believe Metallica and its ilk, musicians are losing millions of dollars of possible revenue. But the supporters of Napster countered that argument with some simple statistics. In the past year, the recording industry has posted a 10 percent increase in album sales. If Napster is so harmful, they ask, why did your profits rise?

The RIAA responded by citing regionalized numbers, which reveal a small drop in sales at record stores located within a one-mile radius of college campuses. This, they claimed, is where the majority of Napster users live. However, the sales-tracking service Soundscan reports that a minor decline in college store purchases happened from 1998 to 1999 — before Napster ever existed. If you want a reason for the drop in sales at college-town stores, look to discount retailers such as Best Buy and CDNow, whose bargain bin prices beat mall stores by a good five dollars or more. Hell, the college kids are supposed to be smart. If they can use the Internet to get MP3s, then they can shop online. If they’re smart enough to pass the ACT, then they can comparison shop at Best Buy and find greater savings. This means more pitchers of beer back at the underage-patron-serving bars within the one-mile radius of college campuses. These establishments never seem to experience a decline in sales.

If I were a music store owner, I’d ask the RIAA how the price-fixing litigation is going. The United States government is suing the major recording companies for fixing the cost of their compact discs over the past 20 years. If you are old enough to remember the switchover from albums to compact discs, then you should remember the claims from the record companies that within time, the price of CDs, which cost somewhere between 20 and 30 cents to manufacture, would dip below $10 dollars. Two decades later, the price is hovering closer to $20, and the federal government says the RIAA members have been in collusion to keep the cost high across the board. Who is the pirate in this scenario?

Most Napster users are music fans who are frustrated about their lack of access to new sounds. Radio sucks and MTV sucks more, so the computer-savvy have sought out different avenues to achieve musical salvation. Napster has, so far, provided that divine intervention — a rebellious force battling an evil empire. I think I’ll sign up to serve with those rebel scum. Choose your side now, and may the force be with you.

Categories: Music