Saturday, August 1, 2009

College Student Fined $675K for Downloading and Filesharing Music Files

How Can Anybody Justify This?

The record industry is at it again obtaining huge judgments for hundreds of thousands of dollars against individuals guilty of downloading and sharing copywritten commercial music. See the following article for a truly outrageous recent case..

How on earth does a punishment this severe fit the crime? If a person were to break into a music store, assault the clerk, steal inventory, or resell the CD’s or give them away, the suspect might do a little jail time, but the fines wouldn’t come close to more than 2/3’s of a million dollars.

Accepting the premise that downloading music is stealing, how much in sales is this young man’s downloading music really costing the record company and its artists? Could we assume that such a person if not having the illegal option to download music and let friends copy it would have purchased the music in the first place or that his friends who he shared music with would have purchased?

It is outrageous that a college student, even acknowledging his guilt, would face such an extreme penalty over what amounts to little more than what would appear to be petty theft.

The big four record companies are the ultimate examples of sleazy corporations that have somehow managed to amass tremendous political influence not just in the United States but elsewhere in Europe and the Pacific rim. The RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) functions as their Gestapo looking for prosecution targets and lobbying the legislature to do its bidding.

We are not in any way suggesting that music piracy is okay. Certainly download operations that provided for massive free exchange of recorded material amounted to a tremendous loss of sales as savvy computer users could use sites like Napster, Kazaa, and other “file sharing” sites provided a massive network where users would basically open their music library for downloading to others while being granted access to other users also enlisted in the program. In the early part of the decade, music consumers had a huge inventory of pirated regular music releases and countless “bootlegs” providing alternative, unreleased, and live recordings not available on the retail market.

Quickly, legislation and legal action attempted to shut down those enterprises, but it is still not difficult for broadband users to figure out ways to transmit tremendous amounts of music files to other users.

The big crime, in our judgment, would be those who set up means by which multiple users can download music possibly allowing for dozens, hundreds, thousands, or more copies of songs to be downloaded to users who would “steal” such music.

However, what of the issue of friends swapping music with friends, a couple of albums, here and there which the other person probably would not purchase in the first place? What about the creative music collector who makes “party” discs for friends highlighting songs from many artists from his or her collection? While this would still be illegal, how should such “crimes” be prosecuted?

One thing’s for certain, absolute financial ruination in the hundreds of thousands of dollars is way out of line.

The music industry should be putting more effort into luring in customers rather than treating every customer as a potential criminal. Creating attractive commercial websites that make it easy to download music for a small fee should cover most situations with the promise of being able to deliver the highest quality sound where the buddy system might provide a compressed jpeg file of 128mbps or less.

Perhaps services should explore the possibility of providing users with open licenses allowing them to download up to a certain number of songs as part of a subscription agreement.

The sad truth is the music industry has not embraced new technologies as they have arisen seeking to punish those who are able to operate ahead of the curve rather than working smarter and staying a step ahead of them.

The whole possibility of downloaded music from the Internet caught the industry completely off guard. Likewise, they were not prepared for the personal music players like iPods or even enhanced cell phones and BlackBerry’s which can be used to listen to music.

Only once Apple computers developed the iTunes network that legally sold tunes for download and offered the attractive iPod making taking tunes on the road so easy, the industry slowly began to wake up.

Meanwhile, the industry’s answer was to develop the next generation of CD’s that would afford better sound quality and allow for 5:1 surround sound capacity as a bonus. Part of the new disc technology would be creating encrypted music files almost impossible to copy. Thus in the late 1990’s the DVDa’s and SACD’s were introduced to market. While there is no denying their sound when properly reengineered is stunning when played over quality hi-fi equipment, because they are encrypted, they are not compatible with digital music players. The SACD Hybrids, which include a backwards compatible regular CD program, allows for conventional “red book” downloads.

Sadly, when it came to the next generation of recorded sound, the music industry threw a party and nobody showed up. SACD’s proved to be a miserable commercial failure even though the early Rolling Stones catalog, Bob Dylan’s greatest classics, significant work by Elton John, David Bowie, among others hit the market to a big ho-hum. The ABKCO Stones albums and classic Dylan albums are now available only as nicely remastered regular CD’s and most labels have all but discontinued SACD sales in the United States. What’s still available is mostly on small labels dedicated to jazz and classical mostly from overseas.

Truthfully, while SACD’s do provide beautiful sound, the limitation of conventional CD’s has less to do with the limits of a 16 bit source which have been manipulated up to 24 bits through various recording techniques, the real problem with CD’s is the horrible lack of quality control in the CD’s brought to the market in the first place.

The record companies in their rush to saturate the market with CD’s costing $15 to $20 initially rather than around six bucks for an LP or cassette, would grab any old master, many of which were EQ’ed for cassettes and forced onto a digital master without looking for the best source or doing any pre-engineering to ensure good sound quality.

Now, many albums are in their second or third generation of remastering, and many CD’s that were horrible when first released are absolutely beautiful now. Further, the jewel case is limiting enough for album information and art work, but so many original CD’s would at best give some image of the album cover and the song listings, all liner notes and other info lost. New releases are doing more to restore original art, liner notes, and often providing new material as well.

While we digress somewhat from the topic of the vicious, heavy handed means the record industry attempts to protect its intellectual property, we illustrate their failings in the entire history of digital music to show that when it comes down to the real basic issues, the music industry is their own worst enemy.

Over 80% of recorded music is released by Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG, Warner Music, and EMI. Their lock on creativity and innovation is a death grip. On the fringes, Rounder, Concord, and Sugar Hill do their best to provide quality music, some pop, but lots of jazz, blues, folk, acoustic, and Americana.

We will continue to follow the failings of the music industry and look at some exciting possibilities that might render the record industry as we know them obsolete in the not too distant future.

When the industry dies, it won’t be because young illegal recorded music entrepreneurs distributed downloaded music illegally. The cause of death will clearly be an industry-wide suicide.

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