Illegal music sharing the norm

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Today, a score card on the war against the illegal sharing of music. Things do not look good for the entertainment industry. Its campaign against file sharing appears to have turned into a permanent and unwinnable struggle, much like the “war on drugs.”

The chief result of the war on drugs is that, after decades, any drug anyone might want is available almost anywhere. Whatever your politics, that”s a fact. It”s an unwinnable war. And so, it appears, is the war against file sharing.

At TechNewsWorld(.com) I find a fairly typical study, from the NPD Group, on illegal downloading.

“Legal a la carte downloads were the fastest-growing digital music category in 2006,” said Russ Crupnick, of the NPD Group“s Music and Movies division.

“Unfortunately, for music labels, the volume of music files purchased legally is swamped by the sheer volume of files being traded illegally, whether on P2P or burned CDs sourced from borrowed files.”

The number of music files downloaded from P2P sites (5 billion) grew 47 percent year over year and still dwarfed that from authorized sites (500 million), which grew 56 percent, according to the NPD report. Year after year I see such reports, varying in detail but not in direction. And year after year the movement of technology works further against the entertainment companies. Broadband and MP3 compression made the sharing of music possible. Peer-to-peer networks made the music easy to find.

First CD and then DVD burners made the recording of whole movies possible. Technology like Bit Torrent made movie downloads fast. Encryption schemes were quickly cracked by bright kids who posted the cracks on the Internet for anyone to use.

The war isn”t working. It isn”t working partly because it is so very easy to download or copy digital material. And it isn”t working partly because the public doesn”t care. During Prohibition, illegal drinking was common and accepted, except by law enforcement. Today, countless respectable people smoke marijuana, and only cops care. And no one cares about music downloads except the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It is very nearly impossible to enforce a law without the support of the population.

Every teenager I know has a computer and an Internet connection, and they all know how to use download software like Limewire. To them and to their parents (who frequently do the same thing), the criminal aspects don”t enter their minds. Downloading is their normal way of getting music. Burning copies of friends’ CDs is the other normal way.

On a recent trip to South America, I found a bar that was using a laptop computer instead of a jukebox. The owner”s child had downloaded a couple thousand songs and played them over the bar”s stereo from the hard drive. For a couple of bucks, he would burn any songs desired by a customer onto a CD. This is the reality.

Where do we go from here? If there were a technological silver bullet to stop copying, the industry presumably would have found it by now. They have certainly tried. Thirty years from now will the RIAA still be suing people right and left in a desperate attempt to stop the unstoppable? It is probably not a good thing to have laws that are both unenforceable and widely ignored. The alternative is to come up with a way of managing copyright and royalties that recognizes reality.

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