I thought I’d spend a few moments setting out my take on the whole internet music file sharing thing. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and its European allies continue to be affronted by the technology and its users, regarding their peer-to-peer downloading networks as blatant breaches of copyright law and criminals in any case. Meantime prominent influential corporations, led by Apple with its fantastic iTunes Music Store, have started to work with the record industry to offer a LEGAL music download service for a dollar-a-song which creates an extremely viable, cost-effective, quality alternative that Apple CEO Steve Jobs describes as “good karma”. I agree. But I don’t particularly think it follows that the other kind, music file sharing, is necessarily BAD karma. (Whatever karma is.)

Let me explain. The product of artists (their music) should undoubtedly be protected by copyright, and I’m sure I believe this just as much as the RIAA does. I’m also quite sure that most fellow libertarians would agree with me – the principal which makes something illegal is defined in libertarian politics by its infringement on the equal right of another; and in instances where the labour of an individual produces music, the resulting art form is their property which they have the right to sell (or not) according to their wishes. It is the responsibility of the law to protect this right; known as copyright. This would obviously therefore make unsolicited sharing of this music (on the internet or elsewhere) illegal.

That’s my response for the law – it should act to prevent illegal file sharing. But there is another aspect to all of this which relates to technology and its uses, and the response of those in affected businesses. I wonder if the directors of the RIAA have ever used a VCR to record a movie or TV show. You see, there is nothing especially new about the basics of this dispute – it is the nature of technology to change the way we do things, and in the case of the internet we have almost an exact replication, almost exactly 20 years later, of a previous copyright-related lawsuit. In 2004 the owners of the copyright happen to be the record industry; and the technology which requires defense is the internet. In 1984, the owners of the copyright were the motion picture industry (Universal Studios), and the technology that required defense was Sony’s first VCR, the Betamax. 20 years ago, a judge of the Supreme Court ruled (rightly) that because the VCR could be used for legal recording as well as illegal recording, he could not ban the technology from being used. Similarly today, some court decisions have ruled the same way, saying that the operators of file sharing networks like Gnutella and Kazaa could not be sued because they can be used in a legal way as well as an illegal way.

In other words, enforcement of this law should be close to impossible. And it is my opinion that the RIAA would do well to swallow the pill and move on to develop the market AROUND the new technology, knowing that they clearly cannot prevent what will shortly (or already has) become a standard way to share music. From this point, we can make several practical observations in support of this conclusion:

1) Those who download songs from others will, as a recent US study demonstrated, NEVER have bought the music anyway.

2) It would appear from further recent results which show independently, consistent with point 1, that CD sales have not dropped as much as some in the RIAA would have us believe.

3) Artists continue to make a lot of money from their other output such as live performance, merchandise and media appearances.

4) Nobody I know EVER thinks about possible copyright enfringement before they press ‘Record’ on their VCR – and yet even with the advent of pay-per-view cable movies, dedicated movie channels and hundreds of television channels; it doesn’t appear to have significantly damaged the popularity of the DVD or even the good old VHS.

This can only serve to prove that industries which adapt will survive in a free market. We regularly overlook copyright law when it comes to the VCR (I haven’t ever heard of anyone being prosecuted after a police raid of their home which uncovered episodes of Friends!) – the industry, if it adapts around this new technology, can remain extremely profitable if we end up doing the same in relation to internet song-swapping.

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John Wright

johnwright@softhome.net