When music meant tunes, not lawsuits

Basking in the soft glow of their home computer screens, young adults throughout the nation heralded the birth of the technological age by saluting the headphone-toting Napster cat and rushing their music savings to the bank.

Beginning in 1999, the allure of innovative music downloading services quickly spread throughout the United States, allowing many to circumvent high music prices for the first time and torching a heated debate that continues in academic and legal circles today.

Although GW sophomore Duncan Vincent has come to accept legal alternatives, he originally joined many of his peers in embracing the illegal options as compensation being paid to mistreated fans, a sentiment still widely shared throughout college campuses.

“No one really sees it as a moral or ethical issue,” Vincent said. “They don’t really see it as stealing. It’s more like taking back all the money that (companies like) Tower Records have stolen from them over the years.”

The unhindered ecstasy that characterized the initial downloading revolution quickly splintered around the heels of one of its founding members in 2001. That year, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel announced a preliminary judgment against Napster, declaring that the file-sharing site would be held accountable for all illegal downloads made by users of the software.

In early June of the next year, Napster declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, compelling thousands of music aficionados to search elsewhere for greener, yet equally illegal pastures. Peer-to-peer sites such as KaZaA quickly became an alternative mainstay for college students from Berkeley to Boston.

A victim of circumstance and expanding technology, the once-powerful music industry stood by helplessly as expanding music leaks inundated the market, sinking profits in the process. The comparative high of 942 million records sold in 2000 dipped to 745 million in 2003, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. During the same period, the lucrative sale of top 10 albums was cut nearly in half.

Unwilling to drown in a sinking ship, the RIAA embarked on a decisive course of action in fall 2003. Over the course of a year, the association filed copyright infringement suits against more than 4,600 individual file sharers and negotiated settlements averaging $3,000 each in more than 900 of the cases.

Because 12- to 24-year-olds comprise the bulk of the file-sharing population, many adolescents and teenagers found themselves on the wrong side of a plethora of bitter court proceedings.

GW law professor Roger Schechter has followed the debate since its conception and has come to understand the motives of the opposing groups.

“My sense is that the industry is alienating its customers by leveling these lawsuits against them,” Schechter said. “They’ve come across as a bit of a villain. In many ways, they’re dragging their feet in embracing a new and innovative business model.”

Conversely, the music industry has a vital stake in guaranteeing its own future, Schechter said. By remaining a step ahead of what appears to be a looming threat, music associations are fortifying themselves against scenarios that may expand and cripple the industry with time.

Directly paralleling efforts to eliminate illegal behavior, the RIAA and a wealth of additional organizations such as the innovative Web association known as whatsthedownload.com continue to advocate the creation of legal, cost-efficient alternatives.

By bringing together a diverse array of players, including 10 young adults, a variety of recording organizations and artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Mark McGrath and JD Natasha, whatsthedownload.com hopes to increase communication and work towards a universally acceptable solution.

“Do we know what the solution is going to be? No. Are there many options out there? Absolutely,” said Brad Jamison, a spokesman for the Web site. “What we’re trying to do is elucidate the dialogue about why certain types of downloading are illegal and develop a cost-effective model for preventing it.”

At the same time, proponents of legal downloading services adamantly store faith in the public virtue. With adequate education regarding the character of the law as applied to intellectual copyrights, many believe the issues will die away to some degree.

“There’s an extreme lack of information out there in regard to digital music,” Jamison said. “People assumed (illegal downloading) must be legal because all these sites existed.”

In an effort to educate their student bodies and avoid lawsuits as a result of contributing to illegal activity, many universities including GW have begun providing free or low-cost alternatives, such as the resurrected Napster services. While many students admit that they have greatly reduced or stopped illegally downloading music as a result, the restrictions of the services make illegal sites more attractive in many instances.

“Legally and morally I think it’s correct. I think intellectual property rights are important,” junior Lauren O’Leary said. “At the same time, as someone who likes to listen to music, I find it a little disappointing that I’m not able to download it as easily as before.”

Comparing the entire scenario to the illegal drug market, Schechter said he remains skeptical about a decisive solution.

“There’s too many users who use in too many locations. The only way to completely eliminate the problem is through massive invasions of privacy,” he said. “I think legal alternatives will drive a lot of people who are decent. Most people don’t want to be shivering in the night wondering if the downloading police are coming to get them.”

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