Friday, February 17, 2006

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it’s really broke bad, like the grammar in this sentence, maybe you need a new approach. So it is with file-sharing.

As most know, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is upset over the illegal distribution of copyrighted music. It has said that if you get tired of your IPod and sell it with the songs still on it, you are violating U.S. copyright laws and may be sued.

As the RIAA told MTV, such a sale “is a clear violation of U.S. copyright law. The RIAA is monitoring this means of infringement. In short: seller beware.”

The RIAA’s position is not without logic. If you burn a copy of a CD and sell it, that’s illegal. If you copy the music onto an IPod and sell it, what’s the difference?

The problem is that digital technology has made copyright law essentially unenforceable. Sharing (or, depending on your politics, “stealing”) music has become a way of life. Millions of people are online at any given time downloading music. An unending list of programs has facilitated the sharing — Napster, Grokster, Limewire, Gnutella, BitTorrent, Morpheus and so on. I know respectable business people with 1,500, 3,000, even 4,000 downloaded songs.

Other respectable people regularly check CDs out of libraries and burn copies. In countless countries, pirated copies of CDs and DVDs — music, software, movies — sell openly in markets. While traveling in Latin America and Southeast Asia, I have seen markets with at least a dozen stalls, each openly peddling hundreds of movies, programs and music CDs.

It isn’t stoppable, at least by any means tried so far. When a large part of the population regards something as morally acceptable and the rest of the population doesn’t much care (who is going to turn in the neighbor for downloading?), and the practice is cheap, easy and almost undetectable, it is going to happen. Stopping file-sharing is harder than enforcing Prohibition, which didn’t work, either.

The RIAA and its allies have tried everything. They have shut down various file-sharing programs, such as Napster, only to have others pop up. They have filed lawsuits against people who share files. It hasn’t worked. They have wanted to tax blank CDs on the grounds that the purchaser might share files. They have suggested that computer manufacturers be forced to add hardware to prevent downloading. Nothing has worked.

A problem for the enforcers is that the copiers have more programmers than does the RIAA. As soon as the RIAA and related organizations begin encrypting disks so that they can’t be copied, some bright kid writes a program to defeat the encryption and posts it on the Internet. Search “copy” and “DVD” and see how much encryption-removal software comes up.

And now they are going to police the sale of secondhand IPods. Your child can end up in court.

What to do? We can go on and on with such intrusive and ineffective measures. Or we can accept truly totalitarian laws sponsored by the RIAA. At one point, it was suggested that your computer automatically should compare all your files against a list on the Internet of copyright songs, and delete any illegal songs it found. Or Congress can come up with a way of remunerating musicians without making criminals of our neighbors and children.

Meanwhile, the RIAA is monitoring what you do with your IPod.

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