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Legal Effort May Slow but Not Stop Music Revolution

Fans will find other ways to copy songs if file sharing is blocked, critics say

September 09, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Unlike many in her circle of music-loving pals, 17-year-old Danielle Lew of Playa del Rey does not download songs from an Internet file-sharing network.

But Lew doesn't buy CDs either -- she uses the CD recorder in her computer to burn copies of other people's discs. That makes her Public Enemy No. 2 on the recording industry's list, a notch below people who copy music on Kazaa and other file-sharing systems.

The industry lashed out Monday against file sharers, filing 261 lawsuits seeking at least $200 million in damages for copyright infringement. But as Lew illustrates, other digital technologies are transforming the way people obtain and enjoy music, posing another threat to the CD sales that are the major record labels' lifeblood.

The labels are responding not only by filing lawsuits but also by offering their songs through online music stores and subscription services, by lowering CD prices and by deploying anti-copying technology. That includes reinventing the CD itself, aiming to deter piracy by putting an electronic leash on its contents.

Some critics say the major record companies are trying to slow the online music revolution when they should be capitalizing on it by taking the music business to the masses. That means allowing the copying of an unlimited number of songs for a reasonable monthly fee that would encourage people to be paying customers, instead of pirates.

"We have to get to the place where we can collect the money, but we can't control the business," music publisher Jim Griffin of Cherry Lane Digital said at a recent industry conference.

Label executives offer a slew of reasons not to go that route. For one thing, they say, file sharers never would accept a monthly fee high enough to pay for all the music, movies and games they download. Record companies have begun talking to the file-sharing companies about offering services that pay royalties to artists, but in the meantime the industry is escalating the technological arms race against unauthorized copying.

The record companies characterize the battle as a fight to stop theft. It's also an effort to regain control over what people can do with the music they buy.

The industry lost much of that control when it embraced the compact disc format 20 years ago. Unlike vinyl records or tapes, CDs can be duplicated with no loss in fidelity. Songs on CD also can be extracted by a computer and squeezed into files small enough to be e-mailed or downloaded through the Internet, for listeners willing to sacrifice a little sound quality.

Lew said she doesn't like to download songs because it takes too long. "It's a lot faster and more convenient to burn CDs," she said, adding that she typically copies the pop-music discs that her younger sister borrows from friends.

Although she feels a few pangs of guilt about not buying CDs, Lew said her burning habits expose her to more artists that she can support in other ways. For example, she and her sister recently spent $50 to see Jack Johnson, whose CD her sister had burned from a friend.

"We spent, like, $50 on those tickets, so that makes up for all the CDs I burned," she said. "I hope that artists aren't all out to make a big profit. I think the most important thing is to get your music out there."

Eager to stop Lew's kind of copying, leading record companies in Europe and Asia have introduced "copy protected" CDs that use a variety of electronic techniques to deter computers from copying their songs. About 150 million protected discs have been sold so far. Some buyers have complained about playback problems in cars and DVD players, degraded sound quality and even damaged CD drives, but that hasn't stopped protected CDs from becoming a fixture in those markets.

Record companies have released only a few protected CDs in the U.S., because they don't think consumers here would accept them. The industry is waiting for a new type of disc that will permit a limited amount of copying, enough for personal uses but not for rampant piracy.

The wait soon may be over. The major labels are testing protected CDs with two versions of each song: one that can be played but not duplicated and another, a compressed file, that can be copied onto a computer, transferred to selected portable devices and burned onto a limited number of discs.

First 4 Internet of Oxfordshire, England, has demonstrated protected CDs that allow buyers to copy their songs onto "sterile" discs that yield no further copies, said George Macdonald, director of sales and marketing. The technology also lets the CD's owner send copies of songs to friends, who would be able to play them only a few times before they automatically become disabled.

Another option, Macdonald said, is a sharing feature that mimics what happens when people lend CDs. Buyers could send a copy of a song to a friend, but the version stored on the CD owners' computers would be disabled for as long as a friend's copy was active.

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