Open Letter to Sonicnet

Kurt Nimmo

Editor in Chief Michael Goldberg, in his recent editorial - Napster, Gnutella And The New Morality - failed to mention a few crucial issues concerning the popularity of music file-sharing via Napster and other programs. Mr. Goldberg's primary argument - the stealing of music is wrong - is weakened by commonly held misconceptions about digitized music. Mr. Goldberg assumes the free trade of MP3 files to be a form of theft. Many observers in the media continue to make this same assumption, equating the casual sharing of MP3 files with going into Tower Records and stealing CDs, or taking money out of the register. Such comparisons only serve to distort and emotionalize the issue.

I would ask Mr. Goldberg if he ever Xeroxed copyrighted material at the public library. If so, I would ask if he considers this casual copying illegal. No doubt most people find this line of argument absurd - after all, most of us take it for granted there is nothing wrong with the casual copying of copyrighted material - magazines, books, newspapers - at the library or Kinko's.

But what if I made twenty copies of a copyrighted article and passed them out, like thousands of college professors and high school teachers do every day? Or I gave them to my friends - or, for that matter, to strangers on the street? Should we consider this an act of theft, punishable by time in prison? Is it unethical? Immoral? Of course not.

In the same way people consider print copying a casual act, an emerging generation of primarily young people consider music copying an equally casual an inoffensive act. Most understand the difference between physical objects - CDs, jewel cases, printed artwork and liner notes - and virtual duplications of the same. Does this virtual copy add or subtract value from the original? Even if it did subtract value, you must admit it cannot be technically considered theft, not in the true sense of the word. In order for it to be logically considered theft, a CD, or studio master, or the compositions inside a musician's head, need to be deprived, taken away from its creator and owner. Duplication leaves the original untouched. In fact, it can be argued virtual duplication increases the value of the original - in much the same way radio play or movie soundtracks increase awareness and exposure to music and thus make it more valuable. The difference is, of course, the recording industry earns money through radio play and movie licensing, while it doesn't with the free trading of MP3 files.

In essence, the free trading of MP3 files is about the loss of control and licensing income on the part of the recording industry - and not about broader ethical considerations. Music consumers resent being lectured to about thievery, especially from an industry with a track record of not only consumer abuse, but abuse and exploitation of artists as well.

The recording industry needs to realize that a growing consumer base is interested in on-demand and less expensive (even free) music via the Internet. Unfortunately, the industry is far too monopolistic and atrophied to react effectively to the quick pace of change in both music technology and the Internet. The entire Napster affair is a lesson in basic supply and demand capitalism - if people cannot effectively get music over the Internet from the recording industry, they will get it elsewhere, be it with Napster or Gnutella or any number of other file-sharing programs. It has everything to do with immediate access to the music - and very little to do with freebies.

I understand the free copying and sharing of music is an alien concept for some people, especially the recording industry. It is my contention that the RIAA is actually demonetizing the recording industry by engaging in counterproductive stalling and litigation tactics in regard to the serious delivery of digital music over the Internet. I also believe they will eventually lose any attempt to gain the moral high ground. The longer the RIAA and the recording industry wage this campaign against file-sharing - against the mere duplication and trading of virtual music - the more marginal their market share will ultimately be.


Kurt Nimmo

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