written by Mike Shea on 5 May 2000As you no doubt have read in the recent headlines, there is a lot going on with the relatively new audio format MP3. I make it a point to start thinking of a technology as mainstream when my mom calls me up in a panic asking me about it. MP3 started about four months ago when she told me she had just downloaded a song and wanted to know how to play it. Recently, the Recording Industry Association of America (the RIAA) has begun a reign of terror across the internet suing everybody including MP3.Com, Diamond Multimedia and Napster. These lawsuits don't necessarily target individuals but the companies that "support the violation of copyright laws". The latest news is that Metallica, a band of such beautiful ballads as "Bleeding Me" and "Leper Massiah" even went so far as attempting to get over 300,000 users of Napster banned because of the transfer of their songs illegally. In watching all of this mayhem caused by nothing but an enhancement of technology, I began to wonder what exactly the problems are, how it will effect the future and ways to solve it.
First off, the problem is that the only kind of copyright enforcement that the producers of media have is technology. It is hard to copy a 1000 page book and it is hard to copy a video tape in any number that will be noticeable to the bottom line, but when you add in new technology like MP3, it becomes so easy to copy and distribute illegal copies of music that the only thing you have to protect yourself is honesty. The RIAA is trying to kick sand over the problem with a lot of high profile lawsuits and threats but once the technology is created, there is little one can do to stop it. MP3 is not owned by anyone, so there is no way to stop the encoding process. Even though companies like MP3 and Napster can get sued and lose, the opensource community will have both the talent and the drive to create new and unstoppable technologies for the proliferation of music. It is only a matter of time before the RIAA has to come up with another plan.
It is also only a matter of time before the Motion Picture Association of America will have to fight the exact same battle. The only difference between music and movies is size. While I don't expect video to ever compress a two hour movie into five megs, I do expect the technology and bandwidth to improve that many people would be able to download a full screen high resolution movie without paying for it. If the MPAA thinks that DVD copyright was a problem and that the DeCSS encryption breakthrough was damaging, they will get a big surprise when they find out that a million copies of Star Wars Episode 3 were downloaded before Lucas decided to release the DVD. Time will force them to make a choice.
A few weeks ago I downloaded the palm pilot version of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet. For three dollars I had his latest novel on a device I carried everywhere and held such treasures as the latest Suck.Com article and even this website! I was surprised however to discover that while I could have this novel on my palm, I couldn't read it off of my own PC. Even though I had paid for the book, I couldn't view it in any other format. I had thought that I paid for the words that crept from the dark dreams of King, but apparently I only bought the digital bits for my palm. While I applaud the idea of digital libraries, I think they need to understand that it isn't the media we pay for it is the information.
What needs to happen in order for these companies to protect their interests and the interests of the artists isn't quite clear. I do know that they have to quit fighting every new technology that appears to be a threat and learn to live with it and utilize it for their own gain. If a DVD offers more features, a cleaner picture and costs only $12, why would I take the time to download it from the net and burn it to a disc? If an MP3 is available for 50 cents US, why would I not download it from them? I don't belive that all the users of Napster are crooks, they simply found a convenient way to acquire music. While many folks wouldn't pay the 50 cents out of spite, I think many folks would feel better if their purchase were official.
The basic message the RIAA and MPAA need to understand is that copyright laws apply to the information itself, not the media. They have to realize that technological change is bound to occur and they should therefore put in place practices that protect the CONTENT, not the media.
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