Attack of the iPod People 

The major labels are trying to decommission your MP3 player.

The music industry's motto is that "the customer is always wrong." How else to explain its full-scale attack on anyone who has ever purchased a CD burner, MP3 player, or Apple iPod?

The major labels claim that the popularity of duplicated digital music files (i.e. "rips," "downloads," and other "piracy") is causing them and their artists real harm, citing a drop in annual CD sales by as much as 9 percent. Never mind that this argument is about as bogus as that now infamous slogan from the mid-'70s, "Home Taping Is Killing Music." The majors have a solution: new CD-encoding technology that shortly will make most of the new records you buy much more difficult to copy. The CDs will have information that only can be recognized by a home stereo -- not computers or CD burners. You will not be able to make yourself a copy of your own CD, nor will you be able to read it on your computer and convert it to an MP3 file. As for your iPod, forget it.

Most of the CDs released in Europe and Japan already include such digital "armor," as do domestic DVDs. According to Alex Sexton, vice president of marketing for music technology for Macrovision, a company that creates such armor, consumers in this country will soon join in the fun. By the middle of this year, most American major-label releases could include such digital-rights-management schemes -- putting an end to rah-rah days of unencumbered CD-ripping. "We have over sixty million discs that have been replicated and sent out, worldwide," Sexton says, referring to his company's anticopying technology. "A lot of people are surprised about that. They don't realize that the technology has progressed that far."

Well it has, and people already are crying foul. Consumers who love the MP3 format enough to invest in CD burners or portable players will now be unable to use those devices with new major-label releases. But do the majors really expect people who spent $300 to $500 on an iPod to simply chuck them out the window? People are going to continue to use their toys, even if it means breaking the law, which is what the majors will soon force us to do. People will stop buying CDs that they can't play anywhere they want any more and start illegally downloading entire albums and MP3 files from file-sharing sites. Although your typical schmo may not be able to get around the encoding, there will always be some techie hackers out there with the skills to offer up the songs for the rest of us. The irony here is that the record labels, by attempting to stem the tide of piracy, actually are going to create a whole new tsunami of illegal file-swapping by once-law-abiding MP3 users.

Eliot Van Buskirk, a senior editor with CNET, the online technology journal, thinks the labels are foolish to try and stem the tide of CD duplication. "More people have listened to some kind of online music than voted for Gore or Bush in the last election," he says. "So do the companies plan to throw us all in jail as felons? No. They can decide the rules all they want, but ultimately consumers have the money that makes the entire market possible. They've forgotten that. They think that they can make the rules from the top down, when in reality what's going to happen is completely different. The more they fight it, the more they drive it underground and make it harder to strike a bargain down the line with consumers."

Granted, the Recording Industry Association of America does make a good case against being able to download all the free music you want willy-nilly. "You wouldn't walk into a record store and pocket a CD and walk out with it, so why download the whole thing off the Internet?" goes the refrain. It also has a point in noting that we are no longer talking about one guy buying a blank cassette tape to make a copy of Aqualung to play in his car; we're talking about one person offering a digital file of the new Eminem record on Kazaa and several thousand people copying it for themselves.

But by attacking law-abiding people who simply want to make their music more portable, the record companies are giving the finger to what's called "fair use." When a similarly unenlightened cabal of entertainment conglomerates went after cassette recorders and VCRs in the '70s, Congress stepped in to protect the practice. The biggies lost because Congress concluded that most people who taped Knot's Landing or Thriller were doing it for themselves, and not to sell on the black market. Now, in their wisdom, the major labels have decided that making a tape for yourself is not "fair use" but stealing. Sounds like time for Congress to pay attention again.

If you read the music trade magazines, there's a lot of talk about letting business drive the technology, not the other way 'round. In short, entertainment companies are running scared, afraid that we'll all find out that they have no effective copyright control over their products. Well, for those people who are morally opposed to illegal file-sharing, maybe you should ask yourself if the labels you are protecting (no, it's not about the artists) really give a shit about what you want. They are telling you how, when, and where you can play your own music. Face it, it's an invasion of the iPod snatchers.


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