The global love of popular music has led to what some call piracy; that is, music lovers are spreading their favorite songs over the Internet, where they can be downloaded without paying for expensive CD's. Good for music lovers, bad for the music industry, which is losing money and is now striking back. VOA's Rich Kelley describes the battle.
Tens of millions of Americans have committed music piracy, according to the music industry. It says this is costing billions of dollars in lost sales. High-speed Internet connections are spreading across the globe and individual computer users can copy music easily and fast. At the same time, the international music industry is nervously watching music sales decline in most countries.
Allen Dixon is Executive Director of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the IFPI, in London. It represents the world's record producers. Mr. Dixon sees a clear connection between the Internet and poor record sales: “The Internet was born in the United States, and the World Wide Web got going in the 1990's. And the U.S. had a head start on everything with respect to the Internet as far as the number of connections, number of services and then hi-speed bandwidth. But in many parts of the world, countries are catching up and in some countries surpassing the United States as far as the 'penetration' -- as they call it -- of high-speed Internet, broadband connections.”
Since the music industry cannot take millions of people to court, it is making an example of a small number of suspected pirates by threatening them with expensive lawsuits. Mr. Dixon says the threat has been effective: “The actions that we have taken as an industry, not only in the United States but also in many other countries worldwide, serve as a deterrent and a warning to other people who would think about those kinds of activities.”
Mr. Dixon, executive director of the organization that represents the international music industry, sees the World Trade Organization as the next battleground for Internet music piracy: “Most of the developed and developing countries worldwide are members of international treaties, in which they promise to protect copyright. At the World Trade Organization, there are more than 200 member countries. Under the WTO agreement, they have all agreed to have certain protections are copyright that are at least at the minimum level worldwide.”
Not everybody agrees with the tough anti-piracy approach taken by record producers. Some analysts say there may be other reasons for the recent decline in record sales. They point to the industry's internal problems, artificially high record prices, and poor quality of music offered by major labels.
Reporter Cynthia Webb of washingtonpost.com, who writes on technology issues, thinks that defenders of free music on the Internet make a pretty convincing case: “They say the industry has cost-prohibitive pricing. And music fans argue, for example, that ‘I don't want to pay $20 for that compact disc when I only like one or two of the songs.’ Furthermore, some of those critics say that they have bought more CD's because of so-called illegal downloading because ‘I am able to sample music before I go out and buy it.’"
Will the music industry win the war against Internet music pirates? Mr. Dixon predicts that it will at least win most battles: “Will we stop every person everywhere on the whole face of the planet from doing something illegal on the Internet? Well, no. Can we deter the vast majority of the legitimate public from doing something illegal and moving them to legitimate Internet services? We certainly expect that we can do that.”
American singer Janis Ian published an article for Performing Songwriter Magazine, in which she argues that free music downloads help artists who are less vigorously promoted by record companies. She says the Internet gives them exposure and attracts music lovers to live concerts. Janis Ian also reminds that the entertainment industry has reacted in a very similar way to almost every technical innovation that seemed to threaten its monopoly. It responded angrily to the advent of tape recorders, video-cassettes, mini-discs, recordable CD's and DVD's.
Later the industry discovered that the new technologies created new markets and increased the industry's revenues. Janis Ian believes the same will happen with the Internet. She writes that if record companies agreed to charge just 10 cents per downloaded song, many of today's "pirates" would agree to pay and the companies would make half a million dollars per day.
Some analysts say that Internet radio - a relatively new but rapidly growing broadcast technology - can bring together the interests of the music industry and the mostly young audience, which prefers to get its music from the Internet. Internet radio stations broadcast from computers through the World Wide Web. They are cheap to operate and can reach diverse, dedicated markets.
Kurt Hanson is publisher of RAIN, or Radio and Internet Newsletter, and chief of an Internet radio station called Accuradio. He says that in America most Internet broadcasters pay royalties for the music they play. He adds that Internet radio often reaches audiences ignored by traditional mass-market broadcasters:
“Internet radio stations tend to be niche formats, like straight-ahead jazz or Broadway or cabaret or British rock and roll. Niches that are too small to warrant an FM signal in a city but when you have a whole country or the world to draw listeners from, there are enough listeners to make something sustainable from that.”
In the meantime, however, the war on music piracy is spreading into the motion picture industry. Cynthia Webb from washingtonpost.com, says Hollywood is already fearful of a new generation of Internet pirates gaining unauthorized access to blockbuster productions: “Instead of it being music downloaded, it's files containing entire movies. Recently in Hollywood, they've really cracked down at the premieres. I think The Hulk was on the Internet before it showed up in the theaters.”
The music and entertainment industry says tough legal measures are necessary to protect intellectual property and secure revenues from costly production ventures. Defenders of free Internet access to music and other cultural products say Internet creates new markets, increases variety and forces the industry to be more responsive and creative.
Since computers and the Internet will soon be even more powerful and fast and continue to spread around the globe, we may be witnessing just the first battles of a long war for the future shape of contemporary popular culture.