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10.20.2003 by Dan, every Monday.

It's once again time for “Dan Tries His Hand at a Topical Column.”

Today, we're going to examine a phenomenon that's sweeping the internet by storm: litigation.

Yes, I'm talking about peer-to-peer file sharing. For those of you unaware, evidently because you were living in a cave on Mars, the RIAA is suing people who share music files online for hundreds of dollars per song because apparently the RIAA is a small struggling company who needs the money to survive. On the other hand, the file swappers are trading Eminem songs because “music should be free to the people,” evidently unaware that Eminem should be available to nobody in any way save for physicists looking to see what happens, once and for all, when you go back in time and kill someone's grandfather as a kid. Hopefully it doesn't involve rap music.

Our combatants break down as follows:

The RIAA is the industry association of the major U.S. record labels. “Industry Associations” are groups like the “National Tube Sock Knitter's Council” that represent the major players in a given industry that does things like produce preachy T.V. spots about how you should only buy domestic tube socks to Support America, or Canada. Because if you buy Canadian tube socks in America or vice versa, you are taking food from the mouths of the large-eyed photogenic children of the Hard-Working Tube Sock Knitting Machine Operator Second Class, because the executives will be damned if they're taking a pay cut. An industry association's other major function is whining to the government for Nation Tube Sock Appreciation Week and explaining why they should pay no taxes ever.

The American Public is the people who own computers, use the internet, and enjoy the music that the RIAA tells them to. They are Sick And Tired of paying US $20 for a CD with two tracks worth listening to, and have decided that the only logical alternative is not to support local bands or small labels, but to trade the crap music online for free. Recently, several of the software companies that develop peer-to-peer file sharing software have formed their own industry association called “P2P United,” which is advancing the viewpoints that A) peer-to-peer is a perfectly valid technology that is not made to steal music, since large amounts of pornography, viruses and spam are also available; and B) that their software is available for as little as $19.95, because the software developers worked hard on it and deserve to get paid for their work, dammit.

I swear that I can remember a time when I could read news stories and not expect a punchline at the end, or at least see a “good guy” to root for, and I wonder whether the change is due to the increasing absurdity of the world or just my perception of it evolving with my ever-increasing maturity. But maybe it's just my Windex habit.

But regardless of my Ammonia-D breath, what we have here is a situation where a bloated, greedy, anticompetitive, creatively bankrupt industry is aggressively litigating its own customers because these customers were stupid enough to buy into the “image” of the artist that is sold to them. Britney Spears it not famous for her voice, nor is Eminem famous for his catchy rhymes. Music is no longer sold- the image of the artist is. The music CDs are just merchandising off of that, explaining why the girl that plays “Lizzie Maguire” is on the Top 40. Lately, the Motion Picture Association of America has also taken steps to suppress file trading and piracy. While at a movie recently I saw a spot wherein a Joe Average set painter asserted that he was financially hurt by piracy much worse than movie studio execs were, leading me to wonder just how much of the painting chemicals behind him he used to paint versus how much he just plain drank, because that was the most idiotic thing I had seen in a movie theater since the trailer for “Dumb and Dumberer.” Set painters are paid the same no matter how many people go see a movie. A set painter does not get a cut of the gross. And since movie studios are certainly not going to make less movies as a result of any forseeable level of piracy, he will not hurt for sets to paint. The only way he will be hurt by piracy is having to listen to Disney execs and stars like “J-Lo” bitch about how they're ONLY getting $12 million out of this deal after he recorded his little plug defending their paychecks.

Now, none of this is to say that there is not a legitimate piracy problem facing the entertainment industries. Popular CDs, movies, and software are pirated by the hundreds, if not thousands, by professional pirates who get ahold of advance copies and use special equipment to make copies, which they then sell for a profit. However, one hears little about the RIAA paying congressmen to make new laws about that, nor do you hear the about the DMCA being used to prosecute them. This is quite odd, since this form of piracy has to make a much bigger hit on sales than file sharing, and it represents a much more concrete loss of sales than does file sharing. Where file swappers give away the product for free, these professional pirates actually turn a nice profit from it. Yet, all of the attention is focused on everyday people and peer-to-peer. Why?

It's simple, really. While professional piracy is the bigger financial drain on the entertainment industry, peer-to-peer is the greater threat. Before peer-to-peer, the RIAA and the MPAA essentially controlled what the American public saw and heard. Radio stations play nothing but RIAA music, since the big labels have the most muscle and incentives for the stations to play their music and to make anyone wanting in the business on more than a local level to play on their field. Together, the major labels have eliminated the market for a musician; if you want to make a living off of your music, you sign the contract giving your music to them in exchange for an advance that boils down to a minimum-wage pay rate between CDs. Don't like it? We're the only game in town, Seymour. And there's a hundred other wannabes dying to take your place.

However, the internet, with the possibility for such conduits as peer-to-peer and internet radio, is a channel they cannot control. They can see the possibility of a level playing field, where artists no longer need them to sell their music. Their claim that they face extinction is in a way true- not through callous theft, but by being made redundant. The record companies, despite seeming clueless due to their ferocious attacks on Netizens, was among the first to see this. If the P2P users fully realize this, that if a music sharing network that allows any artist to offer a track or a CD for a fair price and get the same shot as an RIAA airbrushed silicone Barbie doll with a digitally enhanced voice, then the music industry faces collapse. Not only the RIAA, but the radio industry, music stores, and music video channels face devastating blows.

So what's a net user to do? Go back to supporting the RIAA? Keep using the free services? It's a decision that all of us who use P2P or listen to the radio or just plain love music must face. It'll be interesting to see how this unfolds. It's the ultimate demonstration of capitalism; all of the ads and litigation aside, the final say rests with Joe Schmuck and his wallet. If nothing else, there's a lesson being taught here: information trumps money when it comes to power.

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