Napster and the decline of copyright–part 3

All of this talk of Napster brings up some questions: What is legitimate use?

Making MP3s from CDs you already own is legal, just like making tapes from CDs you own is legal. It’s difficult to say that downloading MP3s made from CDs you already own would be illegal, as you can just make the MP3s yourself. For some people, this is preferable, as encoding MP3s takes a good deal of time on slower systems. However, one can never be certain of the quality of the MP3s online–the condition of the CD, the quality of the source drive, and the quality of the encoder come into play. Those who aren’t audiophiles probably prefer to just download the MP3s, but the existence of the files understandably makes record companies and artists nervous.

So Napster isn’t just out-and-out theft. (Just almost.)

But some tracks on Napster are legal as well. The right to make and distribute live bootleg recordings has been upheld by courts. And some artists, notably The Grateful Dead and, more recently, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, have given bootleggers their blessing. Other artists aren’t so keen on being bootlegged, but aside from trying to keep recording devices out of their concerts, there isn’t much they can do about it. Such recordings on Napster are legal, but determining whether such a track is what it claims to be can be difficult. I once downloaded a supposed live version of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Believed You Were Lucky,” only to find it was the studio recording with reverb added–clearly a violation of copyright unless you happen to own the original. Many of the live recordings I’ve downloaded from likes of Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Social Distortion turned out to be from commercially available live albums, some of which I owned, and some of which I didn’t.

And occasionally an artist will release a recording on Napster for promotional purposes–or to hack off their record label. Veteran alternative supergroup Smashing Pumpkins released an album’s worth of unreleased material on Napster last year and said it was their last album.

But policing content on Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing plans is difficult. It’s not a total impossibility, but file renaming can make it much easier for illegal content to get through. Digital fingerprinting would be harder to circumvent, but that, too, could be done, and implementation is extremely difficult. The difficulty of such measures makes me wonder why Napster came into being–it’s not a good business model. Part of me wonders if Napster’s creators just didn’t care whether they were breaking the law or aiding others in breaking the law. While there are legal uses for Napster, I suspect few people are confining themselves to the legal uses.

There are plenty of people calling for copyright reform, and that’s not unreasonable. Under current law, copyrights can be extended beyond the material’s original audience’s lifetime. Under the original law, copyrights lasted for 26 years, renewable for another 26, for a total of 52 years. So that time frame won’t prevent Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney from making a living. But under that law, the pop songs from 1949 would now be freely distributable, and could be performed without royalties. The beloved early rock’n’roll tunes from the 1950s would come available this decade. For those songs, Napster wouldn’t be an issue.

Content publishers seem to be more worried about current copyright provisions than content creators are. Sci-Fi author Jerry Pournelle has stated numerous times he had no problem with the original law, when he was writing his early works under it.

Reverting back to the old law is probably the best compromise. People wanting to freeload will be able to do so, but they’ll have to wait 52 (or if they’re lucky, 26) years. Those who produce and distribute content will still be able to make a living doing so–the majority of people won’t be willing to wait all those years. Abandoned property won’t be an issue either–once it reaches 26 years of age, if it’s not renewed, it’s fair game.

Unfortunately, the copyright law debate is lost in all the Napster rhetoric. And that, I fear, is possibly the greatest casualty of the battle. But it’s no silver bullet either. It increases the pool of material that’s fair game for free distribution, but it doesn’t solve the problem of outright piracy of recent material.

MP3 has plenty of legitimate uses, for the consumer as a matter of convenience and for copyright holders as a matter of promotion, and the courts have upheld those legitimate uses. MP3 usage tends to be a fall guy for all the record industry’s problems, but the record industry had problems before the MP3 phenomenon became rampant. As Andy Breslau said, there are so many avenues of entertainment available today, it’s perfectly natural that the recording industry’s share of the entertainment pie would shrink, just like TV networks’ share is in decline. If and when Napster is forced to close its doors, the industry’s problems won’t just disappear, and the illegal copying of MP3s will almost certainly continue, though possibly not on such a large scale. There’s very little, if anything, the industry can do to stop MP3 swapping through Usenet newsgroups and IRC chatrooms, which was where the MP3 phenomenon began in the first place.

I expect the use of MP3 for promotional purposes to continue, and services such as MP3.com will take advantage of it legally for years to come. But services like Napster, which provide virtually anything you want with no proof of ownership, are probably running on borrowed time, even though the industry is lying to itself about the true impact these services have.

Napster will be forced to shut down, the record industry will continue to make billions and artists won’t get their fair share, and the record industry will continue to complain their billions aren’t enough and blame MP3s or something else.

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3