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Turn Theft Into a Net Gain

May 23, 2003

Since persuading a judge to order Napster to remove copyrighted music from its Internet system two years ago, the entertainment industry has increased its crackdowns on those who share music, movie and other digital files. Among other things, it has inserted annoying pops and clicks that appear when files are transferred from CDs to computer hard drives.

Some in the industry have persuaded legislatures in six states (not California so far) to pass bills that could prevent consumers from using MP3 players to download music. University presidents and corporate executives have gotten threatening letters demanding that they curb illegal downloads. Even Madonna last month added a profane gibe that pops up when fans try to download her latest songs without authorization.

But a clear sign that things have gone too far came last week when Matt Soccio, a systems administrator at Penn State University, got an e-mail from the Recording Industry Assn. of America. It said it might sue him for posting an MP3 song by soul singer Usher on the astronomy department Web site. As Soccio is still taking pains to point out, the file actually contains a tune by Peter Usher -- a retired teacher whose lyrics extol a satellite that Penn State helped design.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Digital piracy -- An editorial May 23 was mistaken in saying that Silicon Valley and Hollywood leaders have not met to seek solutions to electronic theft. Top executives of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and computer and software makers have met, as have their technical staffs.

In recent weeks, a backlash has emerged against efforts to delay the file-sharing future. File-sharing networks gained new credibility last month when U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled that a Napster successor, San Francisco-based Grokster, didn't violate copyright laws simply because people used it to illegally copy songs and movies. Some entertainment firms are expected to appeal the ruling. That's a mistake. Letting these cases ping-pong along will clog the courts with punitive lawsuits that fail to rein in any abuse.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs will fall behind digital industry leaders like Apple, which last month launched a file-sharing network, iTunes Music Store. Partnering with Sony, Apple has sold millions of copyrighted songs with protections against illegal copying.

If there's a lesson from the Grokster ruling, it's that U.S. copyright laws -- crafted early last century to protect the sheet music industry from the player piano -- can't keep up in the 21st century. The entertainment industry would be wise to work with Congress to develop legal and profitable file-sharing systems, much as their predecessors once cooperated to develop the royalty agreements enforced by groups we know by the initials ASCAP and BMI.

But leaders from Hollywood and Silicon Valley have yet to sit down at a common table outside the courts. Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), chairman of a House subcommittee on intellectual property and the Internet, should promptly schedule a hearing to prod them to do just that.

As Michael Eisner, the head of Disney -- which has announced plans to test a digital video-on-demand service this year -- said last month: "To be blunt, if we don't provide consumers with our product in a timely manner, the pirates will."

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