Copyright © 2000 by Michael
Segers, All rights reserved
Worth County farmer has worked, sweated over, and worried about the watermelons
for months. Finally, the first truckload is ready to go to market. With aching
back and hopes of a good price, the weary farmer goes into the house, tells her
husband what she wants for dinner that night, gives him a kiss, and steps out
the door just in time to see her neighbor drive away in her truck… with the
watermelons. But, he’s a nice guy. He’s not trying to get anything for
himself. He just drives the truck down to the intersection and gives away the
melons to anyone who wants one. That night, he even returns her truck. So,
everyone is happy, right?
some things are happening online that are leaving many musicians just as unhappy
as our farmer would be. When farmers go into the fields or operatic sopranos or
heavy-metal headbangers go into the recording studios, they all are doing the
same thing, producing a marketable product with the expectation of getting a
fair price for it.
are going to have to bear with me a bit for us both to rove through this article
together. I am writing about a company that allows people to log onto its web
site and swap musical files. This company has been written about in any number
of major publications, and I’m sure that most of you have heard of it. But, I
don’t want to run the risk of bringing it to anyone’s attention, in any way
promoting it, as I rave against it. So, I’m not going to name it. To be fair,
then, I cannot name any of its many opponents—musicians and recording
gives me an opportunity not so much to write about this one project as to
discuss some larger concerns about the watermelons that musicians (and writers,
too) grow and from which they hope to earn a living in terms of the Internet.
Once again, technology—both hardware and software—is growing so fast, is
changing our experience of the world so fast, that we haven’t had time to
think through the moral and legal issues involved. So, let’s slow down, enjoy
a slice of melon (which we paid for), and chat.
takes a lot of memory to save an "audio file" or song. That means, it
takes a long time to send it over the Internet. But, there is a compressed
format for audio files (somewhat like "zip" files of text) called MP3
that reduces the memory needed to save music to about a tenth of what previous
technologies had required. There’s nothing right or wrong about MP3, in
itself. Some recording companies and artists have even put music in MP3 format
onto the Internet for fans to download for free or for a price. In fact, some
people predict that in the future, instead of driving to a bricks-and-mortar
store to purchase a real CD, we’ll just log onto the Internet and download
music from virtual stores. So far, so good.
the years, technology has opened up new opportunities for listening to,
enjoying, and sharing music. In the nineteenth century, to enjoy popular music,
unless you lived in a large city, you had to buy sheet music (the software) and
find someone who could play the music on the piano (the hardware). With the
advent of various recording devices, some of the old community spirit of
gathering around the piano and singing together was lost.
of course, much was gained with records and radio giving people access not only
to music but also to performers, and along the way, to a whole new concept of
performers. No longer did performers get paid for performing a task—singing a
song—but instead, they were paid for a product, a recording.
my time, I’ve seen and heard LP albums, reel-to-reel tapes, eight-tracks,
cassettes, and compact disks come and go. It is still a little disorienting to
me to realize how totally LPs have fallen from favor. Anyone else remember
eight-tracks? Now, we have MP3 files and… and this little program written by a
college freshman who, like his creation, will remain nameless here. What his
program does is allow users to connect to and copy each other’s files. So,
what’s the big deal?
big deal is that if I have a copy of a song, any song, an unlimited number of
people can copy it, but the composer and performer cannot collect a cent. Again,
so what’s the big deal? Surely, Elton and Whitney and those denizens of Back
Street have a lot more money than I do, and the big recording companies have
even more money. They’re not going to miss a penny or two if I copy their
songs instead of buying them. Besides, what’s the difference between getting
them off the Internet or recording them off the radio?
start with that last one first. We are dealing with a distinctly different
technology. If I record a song off the radio, even I, with my tin ears, can tell
the difference. But, MP3 files, like anything else that passes through your
computer, are digital. That is, they are not really recordings of sounds but
recordings of sequences of digits. Even more amazingly, these are sequences of
only two digits, the only two digits that an electrical device can deal with, 0
(off) or 1 (on). If I make a copy of a copy of a copy… until I get a thousand
copies away from the original… that final copy is going to sound as good as
copy number three or eighty-nine or seven hundred, because each is just a copy
of a string of digits.
do we really need to feel sorry for the recording companies? After all, we are
talking Big Business here. But, recording companies are in the business of
making music available to us—in exchange for our money, of course. If a hot
group called the Freenet Ravers don’t sell enough copies of their current
album, because it is available for free through that nameless web site, then
their recording company will not release a second album. Besides, the recording
companies have invested their time, money, and expertise into the product they
are selling, and that includes a variety of services for the performers, while
the web site’s company hasn’t done anything for anyone.
now, we finally get to Shania and Ricky... and even Luciano. Some musicians have
more money than some small countries. Well, some few musicians do. Many
musicians (like many writers) have as many problems balancing their checkbooks
at the end of the month as the rest of us. Besides, in a capitalist system,
whether it is fair or not, the one who sells the most toys wins. Think of that
computer geek, Bill, who, for consistency’s sake, will lose his surname here.
there may seem to be a contradiction here, since I have frequently referred
readers to sites from which they can download texts. The difference is that
these texts are no longer under copyright, no longer the legal property of the
author. Online magazines and newspapers are maintained by the publications
themselves, as "dot com" enterprises that make a profit from
advertising. If musicians want to give away their music at the web site
currently under discussion or at any other, then all we can say is thanks for
the gift, just as we would thank the farmer on being presented with a
copyright laws ultimately protect us consumers of musical and literary products,
just as property laws protect us consumers of agricultural products. If the
farmer gets disheartened by all the time and money she has lost, she may enroll
in a class in computer repair, and say about those of us who do not have the
land, equipment, skill, and patience to produce watermelons ourselves, "Let
them eat cake."
final note, from an unrepentant child of the sixties. We’ve just observed the
thirtieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State. It’s a sad comment on our
life today that the current cause cherished by college students is—their right
to access the piracy web site on campus networks. Several colleges and universities
blocked access to the site simply because students were tying up the networks by
spending so much time downloading music. Now, students claim that such blocking
is a violation of their freedom of speech.
all means, let speech be free. But, if music is to survive, someone has to pay.
Keep your feet dry, your heart full of noble thoughts… and watch where you
spit those seeds.
[2004 update: The unnamed site has been reborn and is now functioning legitimately, but I see no reason to use its name.]
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