Generation Next: Beyond MP3

Published in March 2002.

File sharing software like Napster kicked off the worldwide trading of MP3s on a scale previously unheard of. However Napster wasn’t the only casualty in the Net music wars.
Most file sharing systems have been threatened with legal action already and those still operational could go down any day now. The record industry has introduced “anti-rip? CDs to stop you copying songs from a CD onto the Net and the next wave of music formats use copy protection so you can’t burn CDs or copy music to a portable MP3 player. US record companies have even attempted to hijack anti-terrorism laws in the wake of the 11 September atrocities: lobbyists for the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America) attempted to redraft the law to protect record companies from prosecution if they hacked into other people’s computers to delete illegal music. After years of pretending that the Internet didn’t exist, record companies are beginning to fight back.

We’ve all done it; copied CDs and tapes from friends as we were too lazy or just didn’t have the cash to go out and buy the CD ourselves. The tradition of copying tapes started in the 80’s when bands actually gained popularity from friends sharing tapes with each other. Of course these “traditions? are illegal and so are many other practices, which many people do not realise, are so. For example, taping a song from the radio or making a compilation tape to impressive a prospective girlfriend are illegal as well as copying a track from a legitimately purchased CD to your computer. However practices like these were never really considered a problem, as they were too small to have any kind of an impact on the recording industry. That was until Napster came along. Napster made it easy for people in different continents to share entire music collections. The prospect of getting music for free was obviously attractive as at it’s height their were an estimated 70 million users. Albums from such artists as U2 and REM would surface on Napster weeks before their official release date. However Napster was eventually shut down by court order as the RIAA began to fight back against widespread piracy. A spate of copycat programs sprang up in its place but the RIAA came up with a long-term strategy to combat net piracy.

The recording industry is attempting to set up legal alternatives to services such as Napster. Web sites such as MusicNet (http://www.musicnet.com) or PressPlay (http://www.pressplay.com) now feature copy protected music for many artists, which can be downloaded. These services operate through ISPs or portals and you can gain access by paying a monthly fee. The service comes with limitations though: as mentioned above you cannot copy the file to another machine or CDR, there will be limits to the amount of downloads per month and your favourite artists may be spread across multiple subscription web sites. Music distributed by these sites can also come in a number of formats: RealAudio, Windows Media and MP3, which mean you, will need multiple players installed. While opening subscription based sites the recording industry is also fighting back on the ground. One of the factors, which lead to Napsters popularity, was the fact that you could copy a song from a CD to your computer and then upload the file to the Net. Major record labels have sought to stop this by introducing “anti-rip? CDs. Traditional CD-ROM and DVD drives cannot play these CDs so if you rely on your computer as your sole CD player then you’re out of luck. What’s worse is that these new CDs are not specially labelled so you will be unable to tell the difference.

The record industry has also attempted to change the law. The European Union Copyright Directive, or EUCD, takes effect in Ireland by the end of 2002 and will make it illegal to bypass copy protection such as DVD region coding or restrictions in music files. Such legislation while seeking to protect copyrighted music goes further and infringes on the customer’s experience. If for example I bought a CD from Virgin, if I wanted to listen to that same album on my PC I would need to purchase a digital copy of it. In effect, paying twice. We’ve been here before, when CDs were introduced, the record industry successfully persuaded people to buy their record collections all over again. I believe that the record industry has gone too far and have introduced measures, which the public simply won’t accept. It is perfectly understandable for the industry to want to curb piracy but most of these measures seek to fix problems, which never existed and never posed a threat to the recording industry or artists. It remains to be seen whether the public will voice their voice on the matter or just follow along with what the record companies want. Just as in the past.

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