The year was 1999 when I made my first download, a Jimi Hendrix song, but since then filesharing has grown from a collegiate rite of passage into an outlaw art practiced by pirates and thieves. Judges have been successfully lobbied to hand out stringent penalties, even jail time to violators and, in the process, the ossifying record industry has made a declaration of war against its consumers.
Late last week a Brazilian judge made the use of all peer to peer (P2P) filesharing software made illegal in the country. The ruling, handed down by the 6th Civil Chamber of the court of Paraná, makes it a criminal activity for any Brazilian Web site which displays add to distribute P2P software, according to a story which appeared in Torrent Freak.
According to Torrent Freak story, the lawsuit was issued against Cadre Information Technology Ltd, whose products include iPlay.com.br. As the article states, iPlay distributes a piece of P2P software called K-Lite Nitro that attracted the ire of the Protective Association of Phonographic Intellectual Property Rights (APDIF). “The outfit, an anti-piracy group now part of the Anti-Piracy Association of Film and Music (APCM), unsurprisingly counts EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner as key members,” the article said.
In another jurisdiction, such as São Paulo, the appeals court may have sided with Cadre, who argued that they are not the developers of the software, but a heavily-funded industry group was able to steamroll the judges of a kangaroo court to achieve a precedent-setting decision. Although Cadre said they will appeal, according to the article, it seems to me that little can be done to reverse course, in Brazil at least.
It’s impossible not to take sides. On the one hand we have the record-buying public who, some would say, rightly feel that the business of recorded music is and has been a racket. Even a quality album may at best have four standout songs, which hardly justifies the $18 purchase price of a compact disc. In the perverse, criminal mind of a file swapper, downloading one song–or an entire album–is thus beneficial to the artist if he or she subsequently buys tickets to a see them perform live. The benefits to the musician are delayed, but more meaningful when they occur.
Opposing this viewpoint are record labels such as Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers, who argue that they rightly own the musician and his or her music and any future offspring. It is, therefor, the prerogative of the labels how you the customer receive their product and will you quit complaining about it already? Doesn’t sound like there is much room for compromise here.
With the help of Napster, my first personal computer, a Dell Dimension with 12 gigabytes of memory, became the vessel in which I explored uncharted galaxies of music. In late August of 1999, 12 gigabytes of ROM seemed an astronomical, almost comic storage capacity, especially when bolstered by a 256 mb Iomega zip drive. However, by January, I was a Napster addict, and as we all know, you can’t tell an addict when he has had enough. During this time, I could have filled a hard drive with 18 gigs, 25 gigs, who knows, maybe even 30 gigs of music if I only had the space!!! Today, 40 gigs fits into the fifth pocket of my jeans, but the late 90s was a different era. (Definitely click the last link for an awesome gallery of cool USB drives.)
Just like an addict, the first thing I would do each morning was add new songs to my download queue, and at night, I was often awoken by the sudden, irrepressible urge to mainline more music into my system. The ability to download my favorite artists from the Ninja Tune catalog, the Jimi Hendrix Blues album and every other song and album I could think of. However, every junkie faces a reckoning sooner or later.
During the winter break of 1999, stories started to circulate in that Dr. Dre and Metallica (whom I called Metalliscum), were taking action against their fans and threatening lawsuits against anyone who had used Napster to download any of their music. Around this time, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001 was released, and when I returned from ringing in the new millennium, I too had an email from Dr. Dre warning me I might be sued for downloading it. While I was quick to delete any tracks by the humble and unassuming Dr., I was hardly off music downloading.
While Napster was eventually shut down, reincarnated and doomed to languish as a paid service due to a lack of interest. Without Napster, I was chasing the dragon again, and I was willing to experiment with all sorts of torrent clients, such as Gnutella, Kazaa and anything else to feed the urge. However, just like the war on drugs, the war on music downloads has been an evolving cat and mouse game, with new technologies arising only to be crushed by the calloused, unforgiving hand of copyright law.
So what is the lesson here? Firstly, the recorded music industry will stop at nothing to to resist innovation. Secondly, their greed knows no bounds. According to a recent article published in Ars Technica, groups representing recording artists, such as ASCAP and BMI, now feel their clients should be payed every time someone listens to a 30-second song preview because it somehoe constitutes a public performance. The sound you hear is me slapping my hand against my forehead. I wonder if it too can somehow be counted as a public performance.
In fact, public performance was the start of my road to recovery. Few people know this about me, but I spent several years in Seattle recording music and making the occasional, impromptu performance in Seattle clubs. All the while, I was kicking the downloading habit, but it was ultimately the result of more practical concerns.
Firstly, as anyone who has paid his or her own bills knows, the price of broadband Internet is not cheap. Although American ISPs don’t cap bandwidth, no one in his right mind would want his home network tied up with an endless download cue. While its fine to exercise this level of disregard on a college campus, it’s just a pain in the ass at your own place.
Secondly, as clever as any torrent operator might be, there’s no escaping the watchful eyes of the record companies. As soon as a download client gets big, they’re bound to shut down. This doesn’t just mean loading a new piece of software onto your computer. It also carries with it the risk that you will be downloading scads of new viruses onto your machine.
There’s also the matter of ownership. When downloading first became possible, the dominant medium of music performance was the CD. In fact, I remember how me and the other nerds in my dorm would compare the price of a blank CDs, in sold on bulky spindles of 100. The last time I moved, I couldn’t be bothered to pack CDs I had purchased retail, including album art, because they were already part of my iTunes library. The iPod changed everything. Businessweek reported recently that Apple has overtaken WalMart as the world’s foremost music distributor and it’s all because of the iPod. I’ve downloaded a total of two albums to my iPod since I bought it over a year ago. The rest of the music I have, I copied from friend’s hard drives and never bothered to ask how they came across it.
The real reason why I don’t have to download anything anymore is because of streaming. While iTunes may have changed the game as far as paying for music, the music industry has another problem; mainstream music still sucks. No amount of file sharing technology is going to make bad music good, even if it is free. The one or two good songs on any album I like, I can listen to on YouTube, iMeem, Pandora, Jogli or…you get the picture. I can now get my fill of good music without owning anything, so why buy anything.
In the end, it was the recording industry itself that got finally got me, a former download junkie, to stop downloading copyrighted tunes. It wasn’t fear, intimidation or a new technology. No, today more than ever, mainstream music is just crap. Congrats record labels, it looks like you won after all.