I haven't picked up the thread of digital music and file swapping in a while, and there is lots of new news.
As I predicted, the big music industry (spearheaded by the RIAA - Recording Industry Association of America) is winning all the battles. This prediction was, to me, a no-brainer: recording studios and artists do have the rights to their work, and copying them is illegal. The rights of an individual to copy a music file for personal use are subtle and ill defined; if anything, the ability to copy digital music is severely limited by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1988). So, the music industry holds all the cards.
The RIAA is now going after individuals. For a while, they contented themselves by going after the file swapping programs, such as Napster. Realizing that this was not too effective (if you stop one program, there is always another one that surfaces), they started identifying individual persons who were actively hosting file-swapping websites. Recently, three college students were each fined approximately $15,000 each for that kind of activity. The RIAA is now actively using the Instant Messaging (IM) facilities of the file swapping programs to issue warnings to individuals about file swapping being illegal. They are also actively working on virus or worm-like programs that will cruise the Internet looking for file swappers and identifying them.
Coming soon from the RIAA will be copy-protected CDs, which will allow you to play them in CD players, but not in PCs - thus, limiting the ability to "rip" songs from them. Some of those copy protected CDs are already on the market.
So, what can you do? First of all, don't buy something you don't want. If you are (or will be) interested in copying music that you purchase to your computer, or if you are interested in making your own mixes, or any similar activity - be sure that what you buy is not copy protected, and shun those that are. If nobody buys, they will get the message - your only weapon in this war is your dollar.
Second, don't be a part of the problem yourself. It really is illegal to swap copyrighted music on the Internet. Cut it out. The recording industry fears large-scale swapping of music. If they could eliminate that, they would probably be much less active in whether you can rip a song from a CD you bought to put into your MP3 player.
Finally, look for other music sources. We all know that there are three things that separate the stars and superstars from the unknown or local musicians: luck, luck, and more luck. There are lots of talented but unknown groups who post their music for free on the Internet, or who charge minimal prices for their CDs. You might find it a whole new hobby to find and support these musicians.
One bright note for us: Apple computer has recently started an online music service to complement its excellent iPod music player. The service, called iTunes, sells individual songs at $.99 each, and I understand that there is very little restriction about the use of these music files. There have been other attempts to do this, but they usually charge a monthly subscription fee, which iTunes does not. The success of this approach was immediate: iTunes sold over one million songs in its first week of operation. Unfortunately for us Windows folks, the service is currently limited to only Apple computers. But this will change.
Of course, all of the above applies to DVD movies too, and in the future probably to any digitally encoded medium. As usually, stay tuned for new developments.
(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).