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Tone-Deaf Music Industry

August 04, 2003

What is euphemistically called trading music online is theft, most of it petty. Songs downloaded free deny artists and record companies their due. Even so, the recording industry has abetted the robbery with its own greed and ineptitude. Though the industry is showing a glimmer that it understands there are better ways to deal with the problem, it also is employing a legal blunderbuss to pursue small-time downloaders as big-time criminals.

In April, the industry launched an assault against a few big-time outlaws, including students who ran on-campus, large-scale music file-sharing operations akin to the defunct commercial operation Napster. More recently, the Recording Industry Assn. of America filed more than 900 subpoenas to get Internet service providers and university administrators to turn over the names of not only mass pirates but also those who pilfer but a few songs.

With the RIAA threatening to sue consumers under a law that can impose fines of $750 to $150,000 per file shared, the trade group's heavy-handed tactics threaten to put fans -- many of whom continue to buy CDs -- into not just the doghouse but the poorhouse. Worse, the recording industry's friends in Congress -- Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood) -- are drumming up more draconian laws that would help federal prosecutors file felony charges against those uploading even a single file. Penalty? Prison for up to five years. While the music business is on this track, why not execute a few shoplifters? Or, instead, why can't the industry, artists and others recognize technology's march, take advantage of it and stop alienating their potential customers?

Artists and entrepreneurs must get fair compensation. But in this give-it-to-me-now Internet age, American consumers demand instant gratification. They want to easily search for tunes, download them immediately and enjoy their collections on CDs of their own creation or on wallet-sized gadgets. Some executives are getting the idea; Apple's new iTunes music store has already sold 6.5 million songs online. But an attempt by industry execs to offer a discounted music "online jukebox" for college students, while a good idea, won't work if the plan also forces universities to police their own computer networks. It also fails to account for tech-savvy students who, if unsatisfied with the selection, will circumvent the system.

The digital revolution, like it or not, has transported the music industry to a place where it must thrive online. And the more the industry resists creating legal, easy and affordable ways to download all music -- pleasing consumers, artists and entrepreneurs alike -- the more it will achieve the opposite: making illegal sharing more entrenched and innovative.

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