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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Napster & The Copyright Minefield, Part 1
April 18th, 2001

Copyright is one of the hot issues that can fire people up in no time. As we enter a new era, which many will designate as the Information Age, we face new challenges. Technology has evolved, perhaps beyond the foresight of the most daring visionaries. Computers and all types of digital gadgets make it very easy to do almost anything with data.

This is the problem. It is not complicated nowadays to take a compact disc, encode its music into MP3 files and pass it on to others. Burning a CD or simply transmitting it over the Internet is not beyond the masses' reach anymore. In fact, transferring MP3 files over the Net is so painless that Napster, with its clever MP3 sharing method, became an overwhelmingly popular way to get music files without buying traditional media.

Recently, through court procedures, the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) obliged Napster to set up filters in order to prevent the "sharing" of copyrighted songs on its system. Napster claims to have filtered 311 000 songs, but reports keep mushrooming about many copyrighted works being available despite the claims. There are remaining issues, such as the renaming of files and other types of cheats that prevent this ban from being fully effective, but the fact is the courts sided with the RIAA. They are likely to stick by their order and keep shooting Napster down, to many people's annoyance.

The music copyright question is one giant minefield. So many good and thought-provoking reasons and passionate arguments are out there, on both sides! Some will depict the RIAA as the corporate bully. Others will express their disrespect for copyright laws, for all kinds of reason. Where is the truth? The truth can be found somewhere between the two radical stances. The RIAA will tell you that it does nothing but protect its members. Napster fans will attack RIAA members because of its wealth and say that copyright laws are outdated, in any case.

Why do copyright laws exist?

"Copyright law rewards and protects your creative endeavour by giving you the sole right to publish or use your work in any number of ways," states A Guide to Copyrights, from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

This is true. Writers, artists, and all kinds of creators deserve protection for their ideas. With all the technological means to grab original work, reproduce it and publish it as your own or steal it, it is easy for any thief to get his way. This is the original intent behind the laws that enforce copyright. One will say that the law needs modernization. That is correct. Today's reality requires adaptation, but this does not mean that governments need to soften the rules up. They just have to renew them in order to create a win-win situation for everybody.

Some of the most faithful Napster supporters believe that copyright laws harm their freedom. I believe that they are unavoidable. If they did not exist, too many people would rip others off. Do they serve the corporate heads of music labels? Definitely. Do they allow big companies to make money off CD sales? Of course.

I know that cold truth is not fashionable or politically correct, but allow me to remind you that profits are legal, as long as you respect the law. Companies have a bad name even when they do not break the law, since most of us hold negative prejudices against them. If music labels generate piles of cash off the music they sell, then somebody has to stop them, right? Laws tell us otherwise; reality and truth are not always moral; most people who have a problem with such facts would pursue the same goals if they were capable of doing it.

Music labels boast all the power. They call the shots; they decide what makes it to music stores and how they share CD sales revenues. For such reasons, one who dislikes the RIAA will (perhaps rightfully) protest against their supremacy, then try to justify piracy as a way to take control back. Such people will also attempt to convince governments that something is wrong with copyright laws. This is a dubious way to call for transformations since diminishing the strength of copyright acts could greatly affect weaker organizations and individuals who do not have the deep pockets of the RIAA and major labels when having to defend themselves at crunch time.

Napster's position

Napster wanted to get away with breaking the law, which I find unacceptable, and it soon found out that nobody is above laws. New toys and intelligent file sharing systems can make copyright laws look obsolete, but they are not about to break the concept of copyright protection. If you doubt this statement, just follow the news and see how the courts will crack down on anybody who challenges them.

The RIAA's position

Of course, RIAA members (the labels) have their wrongs and they cannot brag about being pure. They coerce many artists into signing deals where the label is the big winner. Even when the artist makes good money from CD sales, the label is likely to hog a large chunk of the jackpot. RIAA members control the music industry and make sure that the price of a CD remains high enough for their revenues to swell in gigantic proportions whenever they market a hot seller.

Both have their wrongs, they cannot escape from serious judgment. If at least they admitted it, many of us would have the impression that they are doing more than just serving interests...

Next week, I will discuss people's way to justify their illegal behavior and why, no matter how clever they are, they should not get away with it. I will also suggest a solution to the whole problem of copyright and the music industry's monopoly in the Information Age.

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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