No Sympathy For the Devils

No Sympathy For the DevilsByline: Robert MacMillan

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case today that will try to determine who the bad guys are in the Internet music showdown, but anyone hoping for a definitive answer from the justices should prepare for disappointment.

In today's case , MGM Studios and other big players in the entertainment industry will try to persuade the court that online file-sharing services should be held liable for distributing software on the Internet that most people use to steal copyrighted music, movies and even software. The companies that run these services -- Streamcast Networks Inc. and Grokster Ltd. -- will argue that their software has legal uses and is akin to a videocassette recorder. Consumer electronics companies, worried that an entertainment industry victory would retard the pace of innovation -- and subsequent cash flow -- are sort of siding with the file-sharing companies.

Unfortunately for both sides in the case, and for us, the high court probably won't be this train's last whistle stop. If the justices come down firmly on one side, the losers are expected to take their case to Congress and the White House. Whoever loses that battle conceivably could take the case back to the courts for a fresh laundering. It sounds like a broken record.

Ordinary people, the people who don't know the ins and outs of the case beyond the top-of-the-hour headlines on their news radio station, can be forgiven for being baffled. It's a complicated topic and both sides produce their share of smoke that gets in our eyes. But here's the gist: If you blow away that smoke, you're left with the realization that few of the debate's participants stand on firm moral ground.

The file-sharing companies are the easiest to skewer. Their argument, modeled after the gun industry's "guns don't kill people, people kill people" mantra, is that they cannot be held responsible for all the things that people do with their software. It is true that there are theoretical legal uses to file-sharing software, and some even are happening in real life. But get real, guys. Spend any time around the wired segment of the human race and learn how they download their music. You don't have to wait long to find out that they didn't buy it all on iTunes .

Equally up for abuse are the downloaders. Take, for example, UC Berkeley freshman Hannah Ostrowski , who shared her downloading habits with the San Francisco Chronicle : "I use LimeWire ," said Ostrowski, 19. "I know my nephew uses it, my brother uses it, and several of my friends use it. All the girls in my dorm download music." The Chronicle quoted more undergrads for its piece: "File sharing is 'an everyday part of life,' said Danny Kim , 20, a second-year student at Berkeley. 'Everybody's doing it now. It's just so routine.' Freshman Demian Choi said he's been downloading songs and burning CDs since the seventh grade. 'There's no way they can stop it,' Choi said. 'They're too late.'"

Make no mistake about it: The recording industry is right to sue these children and their parents. Disagree? Well, I guess the logical extension of the "downloading is my right" argument is that these college kids' dorm room doors should come without a lock so that the rest of us can help ourselves to their clothes and other personal items. It is not up to them to redefine "theft" as "sharing."

Just so we're dishing it out equitably, the collegians quoted by the Chronicle are emissaries of a larger truth -- the "established" recording industry, by and large, is a club of people who are talented at business. They have managed to overcharge music lovers in order to fatten their wallets and those of a small Britney Spears-ian "elite" of musicians -- small in comparison to the world of artists out there who don't necessarily fit the corporate tastemakers' ideas of what we should like today. The industry loves to proclaim itself as the friend and protector of all artists, especially the niche acts that appeal to relatively small audiences. But if they win this case, don't bet that the record companies will be booking more avant garde acts. You'll get more Christina Aguilera and like it!

Theirs is a cozy hangout dedicated to gouging consumers predicated on a system of selling music on CDs and other "hard" formats that is dying. There's no way around that. The entertainment mandarins are trying -- now -- to find a way to cope with the digital reality (re: iTunes, Rhapsody, etc.), which is admirable. But the industry's first reaction to any new technology that threatens their control of entertainment distribution -- from player-piano rolls to cassette and video tapes -- is to try to quash it.

The Supreme Court and Congress should not declare file-sharing software illegal because that could put the brakes on interesting products we haven't thought of yet. Instead, the recording industry should intensify its legal campaign. Sue the kids and the adults alike until they get the message that stealing is wrong. (It's funny that we should even need a remedial lesson.) Meanwhile, the specialists in tracking down the source of pirated music and movies will get justifiably rich fulfilling lucrative contracts from Hollywood and the record moguls.

If you think that sounds a lot like the way things are now, you're right. This is the way it should be. Let human innovation take its course. The technology to catch the bad guys will improve, as will the technology that lets us experience the best art that humanity has to offer. The entertainment industry might look a whole lot different as a result, but as I've said before, artists will continue to create and impresarios will continue to get rich off them. That's the real future of music.

The Real Definition of Music Piracy

New York City subway riders had better hang on to their iPods with their free hand. Robberies on the subway are up 20 percent with criminals' desire for iPod digital music players and other wireless devices partly responsible for the rise in overall crime in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system, the New York Daily News reported today. More from the Daily News: "'The robbery increase is linked to a rash of forced taking of cell phones and iPods by juveniles from other juveniles,' NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said."

Another police source said this to the Daily News: "Kids are shaking down other kids for iPods, but adult crooks like them, too ... Word is out that teachers wear iPods, so snatch-and-grabs are big around schools." The iPod: it's not just for young offenders anymore. There's an advertising campaign for you.

Wanted in the Wolverine State?

Before you use the Internet to get mushy in Michigan, beware that the state soon could require online dating services to either require members to submit to felony background checks or say in bold, large type that they don't. That's thanks to a bill up for a debate in the state Senate, according to the Associated Press . "Backers say just posting the background-check disclosure would go a long way toward boosting awareness of the possible dangers of meeting people online. Learning that other users are not known criminals would provide a sense of security. They say knowing that checks have not been done would arm users with valuable information," the AP reported. "But critics -- including most online sites -- say any feeling of security would be deceptive because there is no way to ensure people give their real names."

As yours truly reported earlier this year, a similar bill failed to gain any traction in Virginia. I also noted that the bills are supported by Herb Vest , chief executive of True.com . The service maintains an exclusive relationship with rapsheets.com , a subsidiary of ChoicePoint Inc. , which collects criminal background information on more than 170 million people. No other background services, coincidentally, have that many files on tap. The Michigan bill says that dating services must use companies that feature more than 170 million files. Funny coincidence, isn't it?


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