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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A torrent of bits


My God, Fanning, what have you done?


The war against sharing

The year seemed to begin well for the music industry's fight against peer-to-peer file traders. Record sales were up slightly, and many in the industry attributed the rise to the industry's extremely punitive copyright-infringement lawsuits against individual file traders. More than that, though, executives were buoyed by the visage of a white knight on the horizon -- a savior in the form of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, whose stylish iPod and brilliant iTunes Music Store looked to spark a revolution in the way we experience music.

Now things look somewhat less rosy for the music industry, not to mention for Hollywood and other content owners. According to experts, industry lawsuits prompted no appreciable drop in online file-trading activity, although there does seem to have been a shift in the P2P trade: Instead of downloading singles, traders are increasingly interested in downloading much bigger chunks of content, such as full albums, television shows, and entire movies. BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer application celebrated by techies for its capacity to move extremely large files, became both very popular and easy to use in 2004 (especially when combined with RSS, the Web syndication service that ought to get 2004's award for Web geeks' most beloved New Thing) -- a development that doesn't sit well with the media firms.

But while the illegal trade flourished, the legal market for digital music also hit new heights. Apple's iTunes store has sold more than 200 million songs, and its success has prompted many rivals -- including RealNetworks and, more interestingly, Microsoft -- to launch their own online music shops. The iPod, meanwhile, became a kind of cultural icon in 2004, landing on the cover of Newsweek (headline: "iPod Nation") and swelling Apple's bottom line.

But the music industry seems eager to squander even the goodwill of all these shiny happy iPod people. Still more willing to fight its battles on Capitol Hill rather than the marketplace, record labels got their friends in Congress to introduce draconian anti-infringement legislation this summer that would mete out severe penalties to anyone who "intentionally aids, abets, induces or procures" copyright violation by a third person. The measure -- known as the Induce Act -- is so restrictive, critics say, that under its terms many of the technologies we hold dear would never have come to pass. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "If this bill had been law in 1984, there would be no VCR. If this bill had been law in 1995, there would be no CD burners. If this bill had been law in 2000, there would be no iPod."

-- Farhad Manjoo


The problem with file sharing is that it is viral, not infectious.

What I mean is that you can't stop it with laws. People trade child porn online and that's legal nowhere. The record industry has tried repression over and over and it fails over and over.

As far as online music shops, how many versions of Britney Spears do you need? The real gold is in the back catalogue and out of print music, which people will pay for. Not current hits.

If you asked me what legal downloads I enjoyed the most, it would be Moroccan gnawa music and Balinese Gamelan. Not the Four Tops. But the rise of Bit Torrent makes a lot of this obsolete. Gnutella made it hard, Bit Torrent makes it nearly impossible to stop. Because the distribution network crosses borders and laws in a way it is nearly impossible to stop.

Information wants to be free, especially when it's a lot cheaper to download than buy.

And you can rant about theft all day long, in a society where Wal-Mart brags about low prices, these are the lowest prices of all.

posted by Steve @ 10:53:00 AM

10:53:00 AM

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