Pirates of the Cyberspace

Music, money and mayhem clog MP3 download sites

Not since his admission in the late '70s that "dancing about and wearing loads of makeup" was but a dopey career move has Lou Reed uttered anything so classically obvious and stiltedly spot-on as his recent pronouncement: "Artists, like anyone else, should be paid for their work." Several of you may suspect that Reed's recent comment was a reference to his back catalogue, most of which is so long out of print that it means lean times with his royalty statements. But in fact Reed's in a snit over Napster Inc., the MP3 file-transferring service that, as any idiot can see, is an evil antithesis to songwriter/publisher royalty checks.

And Reed ain't the only miffed one. Hell, the Beastie Boys, Aimee Mann, Debbie Harry, Elton, Creed, Black Crowes, Dr. Dre and others have come out in recent months decrying Napster. Everclear's Art Alexakis said forthrightly that Napster is "taking money out of my kid's mouth."

Metallica recently sued Napster for copyright infringement with evidence of more than 300,000 copyright infringements and more than a million traded songs.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is also suing Napster and last week won the first round of its copyright infringement suit.

It's not surprising that RIAA is in on the cause, having just recently steamrolled online music trailblazers MP3.com into court, claiming copyright infringement. MP3.com's birth of a free music database called Beam-It allowed customers remote access to music that could be freely distributed throughout the Web. This tactic violated the most basic writer/publisher copyright laws. A federal judge in New York agreed. Watch for the fun precedent-setting legal battle over damages. The RIAA is asking for max dough ($150,000) for each illegal CD (more than 40,000) that MP3.com dropped into its Beam-It database. Songwriters and publishers will no doubt enter the fracas and sue for damages.

The RIAA is the music industry trade group whose goals are, among other things, to "protect intellectual property rights worldwide and the First Amendment rights of artists." The RIAA also doles out the gold, platinum and multiplatinum sales awards.

Napster Inc. was created a few years back by a doughy 17-year-old kid from Massachusetts named Shawn Fanning. The site is adored by hundreds of thousands of self-involved teens and adults, and despised by rich rock stars, insolvent songwriters and your average dude from the old country.

Basically, by connecting to Napster's free, easy-as-pie server, you can access MP3s stored on another user's hard drive. And since Napster's users trade files among themselves, and the fact that an MP3 file itself isn't prohibited, Napster argued that it was protected from the actions of its customers.

Napster sees itself as a simple provider of Internet service, much like phone lines or Internet servers. The company adheres to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by Congress two years ago by offering on its site a disclaimer that says, "You should be aware that some MP3 files may have been created or distributed without copyright owner authorization. As a condition to your account with Napster, you agree that you will not use the Napster service to infringe the intellectual property rights of others in any way."

The latter line is rather droll considering that most any song you can think of -- from the Beatles to Da Brat -- can be found and downloaded using the Napster site.

And a quick look at the figures tells you the whole thing stinks for everyone, even those who end up with hard drives full of bootlegged tunes: Writers don't get royalties, and the songs often suffer from poor quality.

Copyrighted music through MP3 portals is being downloaded by the shitload. Conservative estimates say that more than 10 million users worldwide are now using Napster, Gnutella and Hotline file-sharing programs, 10 times that of a year ago. Napster is synonymous with Internet music, yet handfuls of other companies are sprouting forth offering even more sophisticated file-transferring applications.

Many of these Napsterish sites, such as Gnutella, Cute MX and imesh, utilize not just MP3 music files but any form of file they choose to make available to users. Finding and trading a myriad of file types -- from software and porn videos to movies and books -- is already reality.

Romanticists, like millionaire rock bands the Offspring and Limp Bizkit (whose anticipated "free" tour is bankrolled by Napster), say the Nap is a great way to promote up-and-coming bands, a way to promote records.

If you think about it, the $40 billion-a-year record biz does provide livelihood for inconceivable numbers of people, from the local zitted music-store clerk, to the college music scribe turned indie label PR flack, to the Range Roving lawyer/agent type, to the label/media mogul who flies in custom jets, to the teen-dot-com dork. Threaded through all of these are zillions of jobs.

But the music industry is based on songs, and all those jobs would shrivel up and fly away if the songwriters one day just up and quit. Even now, how many worthy songwriters actually earn a living?

And it's not just the usual bit about the "artist" suffering from the invention of a language that is not his own -- the "business" side to his "art." As it stands, a successful songwriter sees just a fraction of what he earns for others, even if he's successful and in the position to negotiate a killer contract.

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