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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Music & Piracy, Who's Right, Who Should Win
July 25th, 2000

Napster faces charges for copyright violation since people can download MP3 files as "free music" using the Napster system to find what they want from all kinds of servers. This whole issue involves serious thinking about present copyright laws and potential ways to promote a band or download music through the Internet, among other things.

The debate heated up when Metallica decide to go ahead and sue Napster to make an example out of it. Recently, Macworld magazine published a most absorbing interview with the band's drummer, Lars Ulrich. In the talk, Ulrich raised interesting questions and he made several good points. The issue deserves a new spin.


In my opinion, many people, especially those close to the issue, have overlooked the central point. At least, they overlooked the very reason why the lawsuit takes place and they see what they want to see. They conveniently "forget" the rest. This is not about Napster. That organization is only the example at hand. Whether Napster is right or wrong and whether it did the right thing is not why Metallica has sued.

This is not about the money lost by the Metallica. As Lars Ulrich says, it is pocket change for them. Their pockets are deep enough to ignore the whole issue and focus on their musical material.

This is not about the price of the CD. Whether you find it expensive or not has nothing to do with this and does not justify illegal MP3 trade. A VolksWagen New Beetle is too expensive for me, but that is not an excuse to steal it.

This is not about the big names of the music industry. They are not the ones suffering the most from MP3 piracy. We only look at them because they are the easy target. Granted, they usually act like bullies.

Who is concerned then? The little guys. The bands that struggle to survive despite their quality production. The bands that were not lucky enough to have big labels backing them. The bands that do not get CD sales even though thousands and millions of people love their music. It is also about small labels without the means to adequately protect their rights.

The people mentioned above do not have the money to sue Napster or any service that users enjoy to get "free music." Metallica does, however!

Is it naïve to think that, in our capitalistic world, a big band such as Metallica would step to the plate for smaller groups? Absolutely not. You know, Metallica can say "been there, done that." I listened to their music and have read their band history until the Load album. They got in contact through newspaper ads and meeting at small gigs.

They know what it is to start up in a difficult world. They do the right thing by fighting for the little guys.

The lawsuit against Napster is not about Napster itself. It reminds us that music is not just a big business. It is also about smaller acts that need all their sales to meet both ends.

It is also about respecting laws. Like it or not, it is illegal to download MP3s without owning media containing the recorded material.

No rationalization whatsoever will justify playing an album for several years on your computer while not buying the CD. The law is the law and there are reasons as to why it exists. Period!

On the other hand, we can all admit - yours truly included, yes - that we broke laws at one moment or another. Everybody has. As an honest mistake, it is not more legal, but it can be an honorable learning lesson. Doing it on purpose without caring about the consequences is another story.

Heck, if I want to listen to music without paying, I just have to visit the local HMV store and bring a CD to the listening counter. They will allow me 10 minutes to browse through it to find out if I like it or not. Wherever I lived, even in small areas, there was ALWAYS a store that did this. I never regretted a purchase made with this method. If your argument is to sample the music before you buy, sorry try again!

The good side of MP3s

Enough negatives. Maybe we should look at the bright side of MP3 downloading.

Bands can use it to their advantage when they do not have a contract with a label. Think about it. The Internet's MP3 file is like the audio tape deck on steroids!

What do I mean? Bands can use it to spread the word about themselves and build a following. Let me make an analogy with a type of music that I know very well: heavy metal.

The heavy metal scene has been, is and will continue to be underground. Because of that, not all bands can become famous and it can take a lot of work and years to do so.

From the middle of the 1970's to the end of the 1980's, the genre enjoyed tremendous success in stores despite the lack of mainstream radio support. How did it happen? They used the good old tape deck to boot.

They produced bootlegs filled with one or two songs at inexpensive studios (when they did not know someone who did it for free as a service.) They dubbed them as many times as they could and handed them to friends or good industry acquaintances with the clear order to spread the word and tapes so that people could get to know their music.

Then, it was possible to build a tiny following and get local gigs, the latter enlarging the fan base. This lead to deals with small labels that were ready to push heavy metal. After that, the bands in question started to support well-known artists in rock concerts and this launched their careers for real.

You know, Metallica used this technique in the early 1980's.

How could we use the Internet for the same purpose? Think about it. You started a music band. People with 56K, cable modem or DSL Internet access can download your songs from around the world as long as they know where you put them.

This multiplies the possibilities and it eliminates the physical barriers of the good old tape. With high-speed access, it takes less time to download an album than to dub it! In one night, a few thousand folks can do the same.

What will happen?

This is a giant question. Are copyright laws outdated and useless? Outdated for sure, but not useless. We need a way to protect intellectual property despite the presence of powerful technology.

Sure, there are some artists who do not care about not getting money for their work. At the same time, others seek compensation for what they do, and it is legal.

The music industry, governments and other organizations tangled up in this issue need to sit together and think hard.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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