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Jewish World Review August 26, 2003 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5763

James Lileks

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Consumer Reports

This time, the record industry doesn't stand a chance! | . Forget Napster. The newest place to steal — sorry, "share" — copyrighted materials is Earthstation 5. They claim 22 million downloads of their software, offer digital copies of movies still in the theaters, and boast that no one will be able to shut them down. They may have a point.

They're located in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank.

You can imagine the discussions in the Recording Industry Association of America's legal office: "You serve them with papers." "No, YOU serve them." (Pause) "OK, we'll send an intern."

Earthstation illustrates the problem the record industry faces: It's a big planet, it's wired together, and it's filled to the gunwales with pirates.

You've heard of Napster? So 2001. Now there's Kazaa. Now there's Grokster, whose corporate location in the West Indies just screams, "Come and get me, copper!" There's Blubster, another music-swapping program provided by a company in Spain. The day there are two servers in Greenland, the second will be devoted to letting 20-somethings in a Vilnius dorm room download Metallica songs.

The recording industry hasn't just lost control of its product; the product itself has lost its reason for being. The CD is as dead as the album, and for the same reason: Most bands have one or two good songs, a couple of so-so numbers and a half-dozen tracks of dreck you'll never hear again. We all know what CDs cost — you can get a hundred blanks for a sawbuck. So why does the disc cost almost 20 bucks? Well, there's the cover art, the distribution, the advance to the artist, the cost of catering a five-week recording session for a band made up of ultra-vegans who eat only imported Irish loam, and of course the all-important $19.99 PROFIT.

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You can't begrudge them a profit, of course. It would be nice if it trickled down to the average recording artist as well, but let's not be silly dreamers here. What really plagues the industry is an antiquated business model that requires putting out 10 tons of overpriced junk in the hopes that 3 ounces will make 11 tons of money.

But no one wants albums anymore. They want songs.

Unfortunately, they want them for free, and that's where the RIAA steps in — with hobnailed boots. They've threatened file-sharers with huge fines for each download, meaning that kids with 30 gigs of "shared" music could face fines equal to the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa.

The downloaders insist they have the moral high ground; they'll complain about the cost of the product, the unjust contracts musicians sign, the shoddy treatment the industry gave Blind Willie Simon in 1937, etc. They'll sniff that the musicians should give away the product and make their money touring, which is akin to saying restaurants should give away food and make their money selling souvenir forks. They'll craft shaky analogies to libraries — as if the public library lets you take a book, make a perfect copy, and give it away to 4,982 people.

It's all a justification for the Internet's eternal problem: No one wants to pay for anything unless that something is nekkid women. And even then they'll complain about the price.

So what's the solution? Congressional hearings, of course. That'll fix everything! The creepily named Senate Government Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will soon hold hearings on the RIAA's dilemma.

But get this: The subcommittee's chairman thinks the RIAA is being "excessive." And he's a Republican — Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota solon who admits to having used Napster himself.

Coleman has a point; copyright laws permit fines up to $150K per tune. There's no sense in suing some kid eleventy million bucks for file-swapping songs. On the other hand, no one is going to stop stealing music unless he's scared of being arrested, sent to jail and forced to share a cell with a smelly old hippie who sings Mungo Jerry songs all night.

But there will never be enough arrests or convictions to stop the hard-core downloaders; there will never be a technological fix that someone won't find a way around. Copyright violations will cease when enough people decide they're morally wrong, when the old explanation — "But Ma, even senators do it!" — doesn't feel right. When the Internet is governed by reason, decency and conscience.

Never, in other words. See you in Jenin.

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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, James Lileks