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Music On The Web

Dim the lights and download that special tune from your favorite Web site. Next thing you know, you and your favorite website's owner may have just broken the law.

No, there's no lewd and lascivious behavior here. However, much of the recorded music being distributed over the Internet is in violation of copyright laws and the rights of recording artists.

In the past few years, the recording industry has witnessed the proliferation of websites that distribute unlicensed copies of music recordings. The challenge is figuring out a way to prevent copyright infringement without limiting the prospects of a legitimate online marketplace.

If you've ever heard a "bootleg" tape, or a copy of a copy, you've probably noticed that the quality deteriorates with each copy. Digital recordings are different though. Whether delivered over the Internet or by CD, they may be copied again and again, and every copy has the same sound as the original. Making it even worse for the recording industry and artists is that new technology compresses digital audio files, so it's faster to send recordings over the Internet and easier to store on a computer.

The legal problem is that most of the music being exchanged online is covered by federal copyright and other laws. These laws are intended to protect artists' original works from unauthorized use and distribution. If you violate federal copyright or other laws, you can be subject to lawsuits for damages and sometimes even criminal prosecution.

Music Industry Jumps in Front

It's estimated that websites illegally distributing music online cost the music industry and your favorite artists hundreds of millions of dollars each year. While recordings are being illegally distributed on the Internet, the music industry is scrambling to jump in and set standards for online music delivery.

This is a delicate balance though. If there's too much interference, then "net-commerce" is stifled. If there aren't enough standards, then established composers, performers and distributors lose their livelihood and influence over the market.

It's obvious that the established music industry wants to join the online music game and take a lead before someone else does. Soon, digital music recordings distributed by the Net will make CDs look as current as 8-track tapes. Online distribution could be the distribution system of the future-as commonplace as music stores, CDs and cassettes have been. This is about more than mere survival. It's an opportunity, and the established music industry wants to be there.

RIAA & Enforcement

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is one industry association actively searching to identify online music pirates and shut down their operations. The RIAA's members create, manufacture and distribute about 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the U.S.

The RIAA says it uses a team of Internet specialists and an electronic search engine on the Web to sniff out Internet sites that illegally offer recordings. Working with federal, state and local enforcement agencies, the RIAA helps to seize pirated recordings and criminally prosecute traffickers of unlicensed music.

The RIAA reportedly increased its total legal actions in 1998 by about 400% over the prior year. On one day alone, it uncovered 80 websites containing more than 20,000 music recording files, most of which were unlicensed music recordings of America's most popular artists.

In October 1998, the RIAA, together with the Alliance of Artists and Recording Companies, filed suit against Diamond Multimedia, the maker of a controversial device called the "Rio." The Rio is a hand-held machine that stores and replays compressed digital music recordings. It's like a Walkman® that attaches to your computer to receive music, and then detaches so you can listen on the go.

The plaintiffs argued that the Rio makes it too easy for consumers to download and replay digital recordings. They said the device violates a federal law, which requires makers of digital audio recording devices to compensate the music industry and to incorporate technology to prevent serial copying. Understandably, they feared the Rio would lead to widespread music piracy unless there was some action to prevent unauthorized copying.

After issuing a ten-day restraining order, the court refused to continue to enjoin Diamond from selling the Rio. Still at issue in the courts is whether the Rio even falls under the federal law. This revolves around a technical question about a definition in the statute, and whether the Rio falls under that definition.

Diamond contends that the source of the copy is a computer's hard drive, and a hard drive doesn't fall within the statute's definition of a "digital musical recording." The RIAA says the Rio is marketed for the primary purpose of copying audio to the device, so the Rio fits under the term "digital music recording." It's a classic example of how lawmakers are challenged to keep pace with rapid changes in technology.

MP3 Technology

The explosion in online music comes from the development of a file compression standard called MP3. This is short for "MPEG Layer 3," the Motion Picture Expert Group's audio file compression standard. The technology compresses large digital audio files, and allows files to transfer from the Internet to your computer at a much faster rate, and without taking up a lot of space on your computer. If MP3 technology didn't exist, few people would have the patience to wait hours to download recordings, and the music industry probably wouldn't face the dilemma before it today.

Ironically, the man who helped create MP3 is now the man the RIAA is turning to for help. Leonardo Chiariglione of Italy helped organize the Moving Picture Expert Group in 1988. Now, the RIAA has selected him to lead its Secure Digital Music Initiative, the industry's organized effort to enforce copyright protection in Cyberspace. One proposal is to create a specification standard that could be embedded into online music to ensure its security and prevent unauthorized copying and distribution.

The Boundaries

The Web can help to inexpensively distribute old, new or unusual music to wider public audiences. Wouldn't it be great to jump online and find an original cut of that "ska" song you've been looking for? The Web can also provide global access to unknown or niche artists who traditionally had limited audiences.

Not all distribution of music over the Web violates copyright law. In fact, some artists see MP3 as a way to get around the politics of large record labels. Online distribution circumvents distribution costs and expenses related to manufacturing and distributing CDs.

MP3.com, a distributor of music of the Web, reportedly has more than 200,000 visitors to its website per day. It's signed up more than 6,000 artists and independent record labels to sell music on its site. Some analysts even have predicted MP3.com could become the next online MTV.

On the flip side, you have to wonder if the costs associated with copyright royalties, new MP3 file standards and online enforcement will become so high that they actually encourage more online music piracy. The music industry has always had to deal with some degree of piracy, but it's never faced the potential widespread abuse which the Internet and new technology create.

So, if the established music industry can't just fight 'em, then it looks like it decided that it better simultaneously fight and join them. Even as the Diamond litigation is on appeal, the Secure Digital Initiative will be focusing on new specification standards to allow downloads of copyrighted music, especially for portable devices such as the Rio. Perhaps the standards will be implemented just in time for the holiday season, or so they hope.

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