WASHINGTON — Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a focus group saying that if I gave up two hours of my time to talk about downloading music on the Internet, it would be worth $50. Now, the first rule of college students is, never turn down money. Nor does a talkative person like me often turn down an opportunity to be paid to be verbose. Despite my roommate’s warnings that this might be a sting operation, I jumped at the opportunity.
So: I arrived and filled out a pre-screening questionnaire about just how many songs I had downloaded. A few minutes later, I was ushered into another room along with 10 fellow students. The room was outfitted with televisions, a large computer station in the corner, and a bunch of chairs with little dials attached to them.
The leader of the focus group came in with sheaths of paper and handed out various scenarios. He asked which would scare us the most and cause us to stop downloading. I had pushed my roommate’s words to the back of my mind. But I became a little nervous when he cracked a joke about how good we’d look in orange jumpsuits.
While the 11 of us were chatting, several surveyees wondered what those strange little dials were. The last activity of the focus group involved us watching commercials put out by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association. We were to turn the dial all the way to the left — 0 — if the ad was so annoying it would make us start downloading, and to the right — 100 — if it scared or shamed us enough to stop downloading.
On the way home, I got to thinking about downloading music and where exactly the delineation between right and wrong lies. In the late ’90s, CD-ROM drives, CD-R, and services such as Napster were introduced. These technologies made it possible to have digital music at your fingertips in an instant.
As with other technologies, it was inevitable that the government and the music industry would step in and make sure that we weren’t enjoying ourselves overmuch. Nor was this anything new. In the ’70s, the VCR was introduced with recording capabilities. This set off spasms of concern in government and the movie industry that we would turn into a bunch of movie-copying criminals who must be stopped. Fortunately, those worries did not become law. Today, it is perfectly legal to record movies on television for non-commercial purposes, and yet VCR and DVD rentals are a significant revenue stream to keep Hollywood going
Would that music lovers had been so lucky. In 1997, the No Electronic Theft Law (also known as the NET Act) was signed into law to bite down on those who downloaded music from the Internet. This shortened Napster’s life span, eventually causing it to go offline in 2000 (although I note that it is now back, on a paid basis, and a shell of its former self).
In 1999, the big bad wolf (a.k.a., the RIAA) decided to begin suing individuals for copyright infringement on behalf of the record companies. Yes, the RIAA is suing over intellectual property that it does not own. Copyrights belong to the artists or the record companies, not the RIAA. While some artists welcome the end of file-sharing days, according to music journalist Neil Strauss, “some musicians say they are beginning to wonder if the actions being taken in their name are a little extreme.”
The RIAA, meanwhile, worries that it will fail to hold back the deluge, and perhaps rightly so. Well-publicized recent lawsuits have wiped out the life savings of college students and people in housing projects, making some fans more belligerent than ever. New file swapping systems are now much more difficult to track than, say, Napster, and if fans can’t download, they can always burn new CDs and pass them around. Attempts at encryption have so far produced CDs that crash computers and are still quite easy to crack. Pay downloading right now is expensive and cumbersome, and the volume is not great. For the foreseeable future, the goodwill of fans is the only thing keeping the music industry afloat. And, after the threats and insults, there’s precious little goodwill left.