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The RIAA is out of tune with technology
Napster could help recording industry

By David W. DeWitt



The Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) is at it again - whining.  This time their money and clout has awarded them a legal victory over Napster - the music "sharing" website recently found to be infringing upon copyright laws?   For heaven sake, we can sample any one of Baskin-Robbins' 31 flavors before we buy the cone. Why not a song before we shell out $15.99 for a CD?

In the late 1970's a simple spread sheet program named Visi-Calc was widely popular - and widely copied.  In the early 1980's another computer program dBase-II also became immensely popular and illegally copied.  To many computer historians the theft and distribution of these two programs were a boon for the Apple and IBM personal computer markets.  But does that make it right?  Morally and legally - no!  Technologically - perhaps.  Financially - Absolutely!

The computer industry has learned how to reap billions by giving out free samples. One such example is the Netscape Internet browser. Netscape Communications distributes a version of the browser over the Internet - even upgradable, for free.  Assuming the RIAA argument against this type of free dissemination then Netscape Communications would soon be bankrupt, but they're not.  In fact, this distribution process helped facilitate their rapid growth and eventual $4.2 Billion dollar merger with America Online in February of 1999.    Why did it work? because when the customer is satisfied with what they see for free they're more willing to purchase an enhanced version or request it's use at work - where it is sold to businesses at a premium!

So, if successful business models are so obvious in other industries why does the RIAA continue to fight this new technology?  Because they always have.   When reminded that the recording industry long ago fought the emergence of 8-track tapes, Hilary Rosen, president of the RIAA said, "thanks for reminding me about the sordid past -- I don't think the industry complained about 8 track.  It certainly helped Neil Diamond -- you might be referring to our industry's wavering support over the years for technological change.  I like to think we have moved past that."   Hmm, Think again.

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The RIAA claims they are loosing $5 billion annually to pirated music worldwide. As a result they're attempting to lock in sole distributorship of music in every form - including computer copies.  As a "compromise" to the disenfranchised Napster-type listener, they are brokering deals to 'license' their music on the Internet through monthly usage fees or "a dollar a song" type schemas.  But their vision is too occluded by dollar signs to recognize that their industry is about 'content', not format.  The Recording industry is an expert in music and recording artist - not information technology.  At Napster - it took a nineteen year old a few weeks hacking on a computer to create an environment where 50 million people are all interconnected and are "sharing" exactly what the RIAA is promoting - musical recordings. Why does the RIAA insist upon inserting themselves in a technology where they have no footing?

In 1998 the RIAA tried to prevent to prevent Diamond Multimedia Systems from releasing its first MP3 player with this prophetic statement from Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for the RIAA:

"What we think will really be damaged and perhaps be killed is the nation's market for a digital distribution infrastructure. We can't have a digital distribution that's commercially legitimate coincide with an illegal market where the same material is available for free. We're very concerned [Diamond is] going to kill off digital distribution before it's been born."   Well that didn't happen.

Now the RIAA says it's only protecting the interest of the recording artist.  More malarkey, and a notion that's easy to dispel. - It assumes that recording artist get rich by selling individual CDs.  But very few could earn a living that way.  Recording artists make their money by receiving a part of gate receipts while touring.  Only after establishing a sufficiently large following, and hence negotiating more lucrative contracts based upon sales, do they see any significant profits from recordings.   Perhaps that explains why the "one-hit wonders" are not all millionaires. If a recording artist wants to become famous - then rich, they need exposure. That is exactly what Napster provides.

That leaves only the RIAA (and already established recording artist, such as Metallica) left to cry foul.  Isn't this the same organization that complained when vinyl gave way to 8-track tape, then to cassette, then to Digital Audio, then to Compact Disk, now to MP3, and tomorrow to ???   In many ways this fear of technology is ironic.  With Napster shut down the RIAA members could actually loose CD sales that were prompted specifically because of Napster.   A personal example is offered:

I am not a CD collector.  My personal library is less than robust - as attested by all the empty slots in my Fifty-CD holder.  (Lots of room left for Metallica).   Recently I heard about an amazing blues/gospel singer named Eva Cassidy who passed away from skin cancer.  I was anxious to hear this waifish blonde with the booming voice, but her CD's were not in the bins at either Best Buy or Barnes and Noble.   So, I downloaded several of her tracks from Napster and I enjoyed the songs enough to order the CD "Live at Blues Alley" from   Now then, who benefited from this 'theft'?  Well, I discovered a wonderful voice, Eva's heirs made some change, and an RIAA member made a nice
chunk of dough for a CD that cost them zero to market, zero to promote, and zero to mass distribute.  And that's not all!  As Eva Cassidy's popularity grows then the RIAA member earns more royalties from radio stations and CD sales.  Nice work if you can get it.  And that's my point, the RIAA just doesn't get it!  Sometimes crime does pay.

Not one to be accused of whining I propose the following to the RIAA. First, leave Napster alone.  They will soon be mired in competition from hundreds of sites waiting to offer similar services - for a profit.  Let the free market help you promote your product - free of charge. Second, continue to support technology - not litigation.  Soon, digital recordings will be embedded with something that prevents them from being played as MP3s, etc..  Let technology work.  After all we live in a world where some people have nothing better to do than create computer viruses? and other people are "selling" the anti-virus programs.   The money is there - if you're patient.  In the meantime, here's a really nice picture of Anna Kournikova.

David DeWitt is a computer consultant living and working in Atlanta, Georgia.

Buy Books 

MP3 Underground: The Inside Guide to MP3 Music, Napster, RealJukebox, MusicMatch, and Hidden Internet Songs by Ron White, Michael White

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by Andy Rathbone

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by George W. Bush

W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty
by Elizabeth Mitchell

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by Bill Minutaglio

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© David W. DeWitt, 2001

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