Top
Bottom
Top

Feature Article
MP3: An In-Depth Analysis

September 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

If you are reading this article you are one of three people: 1) You have MP3 music files that you listen to on a computer or some other device. 2) You are someone that has heard of MP3s, but haven’t made the leap to using them (for any of a number of reasons). 3) You live under an Internet rock and have never heard of one of the most debated topics on the Internet. 

I started writing this article in early 1999. Every time I thought it was ready to post something newsworthy happened that I thought deserved to be included. This article has become a nightmare. Trying to keep up with a topic entrenched in a battle that seems larger than the everlasting good vs. evil. However, I am determined to finish this article even though I know the topic will be far from over when I publish it. 

What I plan is a look into MP3 from many perspectives. I will start with the basic technology side of this phenomenon and work my way toward the controversial legal and moral dilemmas that have sprung up around a simple file format. Then, just for fun, I will speculate on the future (if I ever get this finished) of MP3s and the music industry. 

I am very interested in feedback. Please, e-mail me with your opinion, or just to bash mine. Keep one thing in mind… I don’t go down without a fight. If you want to argue any of my points be prepared. But please send me your comments. I am very interested in the opinions of readers and Internet surfers. 

On another note, coinciding with the posting of this article, I am creating a new web site on the music and movie industries with regard to MP3 and DVD/DeCSS technology. Please check out Entertainment Reality as your one stop place to find MP3 and DVD/DeCSS news on the Internet. Certainly it will be a place to keep up with all the Napster events that have yet to unfold. 

What is MP3?

Skip this paragraph if you already know. MP3 is the term for music stored in compressed computer files at near CD quality. These files can be played back on a computer or other digital music devices (more and more are popping up every day). It is the level of compression that has given MP3s such a following. At 1/10th to 1/12th the size of the original songs on a CD, the files are small enough to justify the time passing them around the Internet. With high-speed Internet access it takes less time to download a song than it does to listen to it.

MP3s and Software

Originally you needed a computer to play MP3 files. After all, they were created on a computer for that purpose. The most popular program is WinAmp, but Real Network’s RealJukeBox and MusicMatch’s Jukebox are excellent players as well. RealJukebox and MusicMatch Jukebox even create MP3s from your CDs while you are listening to them

If you use WinAmp and want to make MP3 files from your own CDs you would resort to using “ripper” software that copies, or rips, the songs from your CDs and compression software that coverts the songs from WAV format (the format on CDs) to MP3 format. 

The benefits are great. A computer can store hundreds, even thousands, of songs. At an average of 4MB per song you can fit 1000 songs in 4GB of hard drive space. Hard drive space is cheap which makes this a very real situation. WinAmp, and other players, let you create your own custom play lists. You can play anything you want any time you want. This is an amazing amount of control that has never been available with CD players. Not even the massive CD Changers available today. (Read about how I tried to use my computer to help control my own 200 disc CD changer. You will need to scroll to the end of the article). 

Although just starting to make an appearance in the marketplace, stereo systems and their components will get USB or Ethernet ports for connecting to a computer. Dell's Digital Audio Receiver plays MP3 files from your computer on a standard stereo system. Eventually this technology will allow you to connect CD changers to your computer to ease ripping songs. You will be able to control play back of songs with your computer, even though they will play through your stereo. You can connect the sound card in your computer to a stereo today, but this kind of integration will be commonplace in a few years. 

Hardware Players Emerge on the Scene 

Something happened that turned the music industry on its ear. Diamond introduced the Rio. This is a Walkman style device that had 32 MB of memory to hold and play MP3 files. Its greatest benefit is its lack of moving parts. This provides true skip free playing of near CD quality music. All this was in a package about the size of a pack of cigarettes.

Now there are many players around, such as Creative Labs’ Nomad, and Sensory Science’s RaveMP. Most notable, though not necessary better, ones are from RCA and Sony. RCA has the Lyra, a basic MP3 player, with numerous devices on the way, including the ultra small K@zoo (pictured at left). Sony has at least three different players, the Memory Stick Walkman, the VAIO Music Clip, and the cigarette lighter sized NW-E3. These devices provide a major acceptability factor to the MP3 format by making portable MP3 devices mainstream electronic products instead of niche geek devices. The Sony Music Clip also has the distinction of being, hands down, the coolest looking MP3 player on the market. The NW-E3 dwarfs the cigarette pack size players by shrinking down to the size of a lighter.

    

(Here are Sony’s three MP3 players. From left: VAIO Music Clip, Memory Stick Walkman, and the NW-E3.)

Sony has a dilemma. They are one of the big five (soon to be four) music companies part of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). As such, they are supposed to be fighting MP3 and helping come up with a new format that meets the RIAA’s secure digital efforts. To this end Sony uses a proprietary format for digital music called ATRAC. This displays Sony’s confidence that the market for digital music players is going to be strong without actually supporting MP3’s insecure format.

However, Sony’s format has its own problems. For you to play your existing MP3 files, you must convert them with the software provided (a loop hole if ever there was one). This means you would need to convert your collection, no small feat for people with thousands of MP3s. You would also need to maintain multiple copies on your computer. Adding insult to injury, Sony will only let you copy a song to one of its devices three times, then you must “rip” in again from the original CD, or reconvert it from MP3. In essence, Sony treats everyone like a criminal. This is not the way to win customers, especially when Sony’s Digital Music Players (can they truly be called MP3 players if they don’t actually play MP3 files) are the most expensive players in their class. 

It seems that almost everyday another product comes out, both portable and not. For example, I have seen a DVD player that plays CDs (yes, they all do that), and it plays MP3s on a CD-ROM. This allows you to create CDs with around 100-150 songs and play them in a standard home entertainment system. If you want a CD player that plays CD-Rs and CR-RWs with MP3s, there is the BRUJO MP3 Player. There are also portable Discman like devices, such as the Pine D’music & MamboX, that will play regular CDs as well as MP3/CDs. These have been slow to market, but recently Philips has committed to building the eXpanium MP3-based CD player. Again, this adds major acceptance to the MP3 movement. Even Casio is getting in on the action with an MP3 Watch

An interesting product is the Rome MP3 Player. This device looks like a cassette (see photo at right). It works as a stand alone MP3 Player, but its true claim to fame is its ability to be placed into a cassette deck for playback. No funky adapter, the device is the adapter. 

There are hard drive solutions, as well. Remote Solutions has the Personal Jukebox PJB-100 that uses a 4.8 GB hard drive. Remote Solutions is capitalizing heavily on being first to market by charging $800 for their player. Creative Labs is supposed to be releasing the Nomad Jukebox in the Summer of 2000 with a 6GB hard drive priced around $500. (I heard it will sell for $499 in stores, and $399 directly on their web site.) 

Don’t leave out IBM’s Micro-drive. This incredibly tiny hard drive would still make a great storage medium for an MP3 player as I predicted back in December 1998. The first one to follow my idea was i2Go’s eGo. In fact, their player has two compact flash slots that can hold two Micro-drives. That makes it the smallest player that holds 680 MB of music. With IBM's recent release of a 1GB version of the Micro-drive this could be a huge benefit to MP3 players if this technology becomes affordable soon. 

Diamond and S3 are building an MP3 Receiver for a standard home entertainment device, further legitimizing the MP3 movement. Kenwood announced at Tokyo’s Audio Expo 99 the first fully Internet compatible hi-fi with a 13GB hard drive and modem alongside a 6.5 inch screen displaying a downloadable catalog available from Kenwood’s web site. 

The MaxTech DA-CD555 is a component piece that contains a CD drive and a hard drive. You can play CDs, MP3/CD-ROMs, and even rip CDs to the internal hard drive, as well as transfer MP3s from CD-ROMs to the hard drive. AudioRequest even includes an Ethernet port for connecting their player to a computer or directly to the Internet. 

In early 1999 people were building their own makeshift players for use in their cars. Here is an example of one, and another one is here.  It was setups like these that spurred the idea for the Empeg car audio player that uses laptop hard drives in a true car stereo that plays MP3s. 

The list seems endless, and it just keeps growing every day. Heck, you could just build your own. Until another format comes along to surpass MP3 (more on this later) there will be an ever-growing number of products coming out to support MP3. 

All the devices on the market make using MP3s easier (except Sony’s). This leads to the next topic: Piracy. 

The Controversy... Piracy

If playing MP3s is so easy, and making your own is just as easy, why all the controversy? Simple, piracy. Actually it is more complicated than that, but piracy is the biggest concern. With the advent of broadbanding (high speed Internet access in the home and office) it is viable to upload and download MP3 files on the Internet. The recording industry is worried one kid in a college dorm room will post matchbox 20’s latest album (with the song bent) on the campus LAN and every student will have a copy without paying for it.

Further, that campus LAN in on the Internet and everyone could download the album if they knew where to look. Those who download the songs can use WinAmp to convert the songs to a WAV file for burning on a CD to play in a tradition CD player. If easier is to use MusicMatch's latest feature to burn CDs directly from you MP3 files. 

Carnegie Mellon University busted 71 students for posting illegal copies of songs on their LAN. You can read about it in this NY Times article. (You will need to register with the NY Times site, but it is free.) 

The RIAA’s most notable attack of MP3s was with the lawsuit against Diamond Multimedia over their Rio player. The RIAA was bothered by the Rio’s software package. It included a copy of MusicMatch. The RIAA’s basis for Diamond’s lack of copyright protection was the ease with which MusicMatch would let people create MP3s from CDs. 

Diamond’s defense was that it only supplied shareware software. That software would only allow you to use it 50 times without registering it. Anyone could do that off the Internet, Rio or not. Also, the Rio is a play only devise. Diamond’s software to load the Rio with music is a one-way event. You were not able to read songs from the Rio. This is how Diamond escaped the initial injunction by the RIAA to stop shipping the Rio. In the end the RIAA lost its case against Diamond

It’s a good thing the RIAA’s lawyers never heard about a couple of creative programmers that figured out how to extract the songs from a Rio. This makes it possible for someone to load up a Rio with music then pass it to a friend to copy to another computer. I really don’t think this will happen much. After all it is a very expensive, and slow, way to copy MP3 files from one computer to another. For the same money you could get two Zip drives and copy back and forth all day long. And it would be much faster. 

Piracy on a large scale

Napster is an MP3 file sharing utility that enables people to share MP3 files across the Internet. This has been wildly popular on college campuses. So much so that it has been banned by hundreds of universities due to the amount of network traffic it was consuming by students. The RIAA filed a lawsuit against Napster for contributory practices. Napster claims its software is useful in helping artists share their music, and for legal trading of music online. But the RIAA claims that Napster is used mostly to trade illegal copies of music without permission from the artists. Napster tried to get the case dismissed based on the idea they were an ISP and did not maintain any copyrighted material on their servers. The judge deemed that they were not an ISP as they provided the software and hardware to enable the trafficking of files. 

The RIAA filed for an injunction to shut down Napster until the outcome of the trial. Clearly they fear that if Napster continues to operate as they have, a lot more people will be downloading music until the outcome of the trial due to start in December 2000. Better to stop them now. Napster raised the bar claiming music trading is legal in their filings with the court. 

The Judge ordered Napster to stop the trading of copyrighted music, essentially shutting them down. But Napster won't lie down and filed an appeal on the injunction. In a surprising decision Napster was granted a stay of execution while they prepare their appeal. 

In the coming weeks (maybe months) we should learn the fate of Napster. The appeal of the injunction against them should be settled in late September (be sure to check out Entertainment Reality for the latest on Napster). And the trial is scheduled for December. 

Personally I hope Napster wins. If they lose it will be a long time before we have serious downloading of music, clearly something the public wants for these file sharing systems to be so popular. If they win it could be the driving force that gets the music industry to stop dragging its feet in getting a decent music download business model working. 

Artists Jump In 

Artists are siding up on the Napster issue. Metallica, the heavy metal rock group, filed its own lawsuit against Napster for copyright infringement. Napster claims that if an artist thinks its software is being used to copy their songs illegally they can submit the names of the users and Napster will ban those users, per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

Metallica called Napster on this, and provided over 300,000 names it collected of people that shared its songs online. Napster banned the users, but also encouraged them to fill out a counter-notification form. This form would be delivered to Metallica were the band would have 10-14 days to take legal action against the individuals, also per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

Many people online have backlashed Metallica. People are creating parody and protest sites, and one group of programmers is planning to build a Napster clone to be used to trade only Metallica material. It is affectionately called Metallicster. In fact, I have heard of one person that asked to be added to Metallica’s list of Napster users, and subsequently filled out the counter-notification, in the hopes that Metallica would come after him. 

Metallica has yet to go after any of the users of Napster, but it did supply an additional list containing another 300,000+ users they claim are illegally trading their music. 

Other artists are almost as outspoken as Metallica. Dr. Dre is following Metallica's lead by filing suit against Napster and supplying hundreds of thousands of names they claim are trading their songs. 

Courtney Love has sided with Napster. She claims the music companies are the real pirates. They pay their artists little while making millions off of them. Limp Biskit has sided with Napster and is going on a tour sponsored by Napster. Yes, the Napster sponsored concerts will be free to attend. 

If you doubt that the recording industry is unfairly treating the artists and the customers read this. Even if you believe it you owe it to yourself to read it anyway. People need to know this information if artists are ever to get the money they deserve for their talents. 

After Napster Comes Gnutella

The creators of WinAmp wrote a similar utility to Napster called Gnutella. Gnutella has two major differences over Napster. 1) It can be used to share any kind of file. This means the movie and software industries have to worry as well. 2) It does not use central servers for storage of the list of files available. This means there is no one source for the RIAA to go after. They would literally have to go after each user one-by-one, or shut down the Internet itself. 

The RIAA is suing Napster because it enables piracy. Napster only works on the Internet, as do most of the file sharing applications. Why doesn't the RIAA sue the Internet? Perhaps they are only interested in suing small companies that can't fight them. Take the case against SuperPimpSoft. The RIAA is suing them over a newsgroup reader. This is a basic application similar to the newsreader built into Netscape and Microsoft's Outlook Express. The case is based purely on the fact that this newsreader can decode MP3 files. Why doesn't the RIAA sue Microsoft and Netscape (owned by AOL) since their newsreaders do the same thing? Are they afraid to get in Microsoft's legal gun sights? 

Can the law help them arrest pirates one at a time? Probably not. Also, would it make sense to do so? Also, probably not. That would be like trying to get drugs off the street by arresting the users, not the pushers. If they arrested everyone that ever downloaded a song illegally, they would probably arrest half the people they want buying CDs. Surely that would have a far greater impact than allowing people to trade files to help them make their purchasing decisions. 

The Press 

Over the past several months the press has been covering the Napster vs. RIAA (and Metallica) case with a vengeance. This is being compared to a David and Goliath battle between music fans and corporate greed. 

Few in the general public and the press seem to be on the RIAA or Metallica's side. This is understandable in light of the recent finding by the FTC that the music industry has been keeping CD prices artificially high

But is the press being fair. A lot of people think that the music industry should be investigated. That is probably true. But does it mean Napster should not be accountable for its actions. Hardly. Obviously the case is not cut and dry, and the public's distaste with the Music Industry doesn't help the situation. It will be the courts that decide if Napster is breaking the law. 

The recording industry has billions of dollars at its disposal. You would think they would have just bought Napster out to stop it, or turn it into a paid subscription. In the mean time, the press should be more diligent in reporting the facts than writing opinions. (This article is in an opinion column, so sue me if you don't like the fact that I sprinkle it with my opinion.) 

Piracy vs. Fair Use 

The RIAA sued MP3.com for providing a new service called Beam-It! With the Beam It! software/service you place a CD that you own into your CD-ROM drive. The software determines what CD it is, and then “beams” the songs from that CD to your personal account on the My.MP3.com site for you to listen to in streaming format anywhere you want. The “beaming” is not the transfer of the songs from your physical CD, but rather the transfer of a record in a database that provides you with the ability to listen to MP3.com’s copy of the song on their server. 

If I buy a CD, shouldn’t I be allowed to listen to it anywhere I want? If that is provided by a service isn't that all the better. 

With regard to MP3.com’s Beam It service Hilary Rosen, President of the RIAA, has stated, “it is not legal to compile a vast database of our member's sound recordings with no permission and no license. And whatever the individual's right to use their own music, you cannot exploit that for your company's commercial gain.” 

Doesn’t the music industry exploit its customers every day for its companies’ commercial gain? Overcharging for CDs, “filling” CDs with songs we don’t want, etc. These are all exploits for their commercial gain. 

The RIAA has been adamant about stomping out new technology that leaves it in less control of how music is “used.” 

In what could be a big blow to online music technology, the RIAA won the first round in this battle. The Judge in the case deemed MP3.com’s activities as illegal. However, MP3.com and various members of the RIAA have negotiated settlements on the issue. 

New Artists Have A Chance 

Piracy is only part of the controversy. Another is that, for the first time, small bands can legally distribute their music on the Internet without using a record label. They have the ability to use sites like MP3.com to get recognized. This won’t make them much money, but the idea is they can generate the kind of interest that leads to ticket sales at concerts and clubs, and eventually a recording contract. 

AMP3.com is a music site with an interesting approach. They require users to view an ad before they download each song. They charge 12 cents for the ad, and the artist gets 5 of those cents. That’s 40% of the revenue stream. Name one major label that gives up 40% of its revenue to the artist it represents. You can’t. 

Whether artists can make a living at this or not, the record labels don’t like it because they lose control over the music business. What if an established artist decided to release songs over the Internet without their label? I have heard of a number of artists that have done this only to be shot down. Billy Idol comes to mind. He wanted to release two new songs to his fans free of charge. His record label stepped in immediately and put a stop to his ability to release the songs. They had exclusive rights to distribute any of his songs. David Bowie was one of the first well-known artists to release a song in MP3 format. However, that will be rare for any artist tied to a contract with a recording studio. 

Even with sites like MP3.com, AMP3.com, Epitonic.com, Emusic.com, allmp3.com, etc., etc., eventually a group will have to sign with a major label. Their distribution channel is huge as well as the ability to get songs played on the radio. This would get their music to the masses much better that the current Internet word-of-mouth. 

Money vs. Cost 

Let’s not forget the music industry makes lots of money off sales of CDs. Fifteen years ago, when CDs were new, the record industry said that the price of CDs would be high until they recouped the investment in making the transition to CDs. 

Well, it costs far less than $1 to mass-produce CDs today, but they are still charging $12 - $17. The RIAA claims that CDs should cost $34 due to inflation over the years. Do they think CD players should cost well over $1000 due to inflation as well? 

If you look closely at the price of cassettes vs. CDs you can see that the recording industry has been ripping off the public for a long time. A CD typically costs $4-5 more than a cassette with the same songs. Why? Does the artist get a bigger royalty when the sale is a CD? No. 

Also, cassettes are declining in popularity. CDs outsell cassettes by a wide margin. Yet the cassette sells for less. Since when does low volume, high manufacturing cost items sell for less? Is it any wonder why downloading music over the Internet for free is such a popular trend. 

Fortunately there may be some relief on this. The Federal Trade Commission has found that the music industry has been keeping the price of CDs artificially high. Music companies reimburse retailers for advertising. This is a lot of money, and can add up to tens of thousands of dollars for a large store, or chain of stores. But this reimbursement is based on retailers not being allowed to advertise CDs below a set price that the music companies determine. In other words, retailers lose a huge stream of money if they try to advertise CDs for less than the industry wants. 

Let's take a closer look at this minimum advertised pricing policy (MAP) as it is called. There is nothing inherently illegal about MAP. However, who is this protecting. The Music Industry claims this protects small businesses selling CDs. Without it they would be forced out of business by loss-lead sales at big chains like Best Buy. True enough. But it is the Best Buys and Wal-Marts that are getting this advertising incentive money. The small stores are still making too small a profit and are going out of business anyway. Couldn't the music industry just lower the price of CDs to all stores to the point were loss-leading CDs would not be possible at the big chains, and small stores could offer competitive prices. 

The FTC settled with the music industry over MAP practices. This settlement required the music industry to suspend their advertising shenanigans for at least 7 years. But an interesting twist happened. 28 States sued the major record labels and two major music store chains. They claim the defendants colluded to fix prices of compact discs resulting in hundreds of millions in damages. (Do they need my address when they win the case so I can get my share of the settlement?) 

Legality 

We already talked about legality with regards to piracy. Let's continue on that theme for a moment. It is illegal to post songs on the Internet unless you have the permission of the artist/label. But is it illegal to download the song? Yes. A lot of sites try to get away with saying something like, “you can only keep these songs for 24 hours at which time you are required to delete them or buy the CD.” Yea, Right! Who do they think they are fooling? The recording industry? Not likely. They know it is illegal, which is why these sites are always moving, or disappearing. 

Trust me, it is just as illegal to download songs without the permission of the artist/label as it is to upload them. Maybe you can play dumb. “Uh, officer, I didn’t know I was downloading something illegal. By the way... where is your search warrant?” Now where is that delete key! 

The record labels and their lawyers would prefer to stop the people posting the songs, in essence stopping the downloading. So the RIAA, and others, would rather catch the ones with the Web and FTP sites than go door to door to your house. That doesn’t mean that your home collection of downloaded MP3s is not illegal. It just means that you are likely not to be arrested, yet. 

Music vs. Software and the Piracy Debate 

Let’s compare music to software for a moment. The software industry complains about piracy more than the music industry (at least in this country). Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry's trade association, estimated that $3.2 billion was lost to illegal copying of computer games in 1998. Bull! That assumes that everyone that ever copied a program or game would have bought it. That is not true. What about people that pirate software only to buy it later. They may get attached to it and buy the next version that comes out. This increases revenue in the long run. Maybe they look at a program or game once or twice and think it is worthless, and never use it again. Either of these situations belies the software industries accounting of the money lost on piracy. 

Software companies are more concerned with a company that buys one software title and puts it on their LAN for all employees to use. This is not a concern for the music industry, which peddles its wears mostly to individuals, not businesses. 

Music vs. Movies and the Piracy Debate 

We can also compare MP3s to the movie industry. The movie industry thought the VCR was going to be the death of movies. Obviously they were wrong. Ticket sales are at an all time high, and rentals are a multi-billion dollar business. Yet it is completely possible for people to rent a movie, dupe it with two VCRs, and sell the copy. Is this happening? No. The pirated movies being sold on the corners of New York City are movies playing in theaters that have been “camcordered” and put on VHS. This problem exists because the movie industry forces people to wait too long to buy a legitimate copy of a movie. In other words... the movie industry is feeding the market for piracy. If the movie industry doesn’t want to feed piracy, they need to come up with a way to get people what they want quickly and fairly. 

Print vs. the Internet 

We can even look at the Internet with regard to magazines. The publishing world thought the Internet would be the end of magazines. Yet there are even more magazines being printed and sales at newsstands are up. In fact, we have print magazines about the Internet and the Web, which I find a little silly. 

Piracy is not over 

The longer the music industry takes to come up with a legal, fair and easy way to download music from the Internet, the more they are feeding piracy. It is a fundamental economic situation, there is a demand for downloadable digital music and the only ones supplying it at the moment are pirates. 

Statistics 

Ultimately we must ask this question... would the person that downloaded a song have bought the CD if said song was not available to download in the first place? Some would, but I think most would not. 

I have bought CDs after downloading songs from those CDs. It was a great way to sample the music before buying. I think this is not uncommon. In fact, sales of CDs are up 8% as of the beginning of 2000 compared to sales in 1999. Clearly this massive piracy the music industry is worried about has not hurt them in any way. In fact, it seems to be helping them. Of course the music industry wants you to believe statistics that claim that sales are down near colleges that have students using Napster. 

Statistics are a funny thing. You can say that sales are down 4% at record stores near colleges that have access to Napster. You could also say that sales are down at local/small retail record shops overall by more than 4% so the stores near colleges are doing better than their fellow retailers. Overall sales are up, and it is easy to conceive that college students would rather travel to a Wal-Mart and save a couple of bucks on a CD. This would have nothing to do with Napster or other downloading over the Internet. 

Most of the studies done don't tell a clear picture. You would have to perform pretty in-depth analysis to know if college students really are spending less money on CDs just since music became popular to download and Napster's introduction late in 1999. You would have to determine if there wasn't some other reason for the slump in college student sales, like high gasoline prices, that affect their purchasing decisions. Let's face it, if sales are up 8% overall, a number not in dispute, how does the music industry think it will be able to prove damages? 

Copyrights 

What all this boils down to is copyrights. If an artist owns the copyright to a song, then by downloading it without compensating the artist you are violating copyright laws. 

Some people will argue that copying a song and giving it to a friend is no different with MP3s then it is with cassettes, and this has been going on for a very long time. Does the cassette analogy violate copyright laws? Sure it does. The fact that people are not being arrested, or sued, for it doesn't make it legal. But if a law is never enforced is it a valid law? The RIAA is now attempting to enforce a law that has gone largely unnoticed for years. 

We have laws like the Audio Home Recording Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act with extras like the Sound Recording Amendment. Let's not forget the infamous Sony vs. Universal case, otherwise known as the 1984 Sony Betamax case. Yet these laws are outdated in the fast moving world of the Internet. Perhaps all the copyright laws need to be revisited in the light of the global Internet. Can these U.S. laws apply to people around the world? 

The RIAA has sued more companies than I can count. But they have yet to win a single case at trial. Although they won the first round of its case with MP3.com for their Beam-It service, they negotiated to settle the matter. Why not just let the law deal with MP3.com and fine them into bankruptcy? We will see if the RIAA carries out its case against Napster, or settles it too. 

Obviously, these laws need to be rewritten; otherwise lawsuits against companies like Napster and MP3.com would be open and shut. They are not, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we look at the copyright laws as they exist today, everyone that has ever given away or sold a CD is breaking the law. Copyright law says you must have permission from the artist/author to sell or distribute their copyrighted material. That means it is illegal to go to a pawnshop and sell them your old CDs. This also applies to books. Both of these activities have been going on for years. Businesses are founded on them. Why isn’t the RIAA going after second hand (used) CD and bookstores? 

The common book analogy holds that when trading, lending, giving or selling books you no longer can read it. Only one person has possession at a time. Used CD stores and pawnshops operate on this basis. But with the ease of making exact copies of songs in MP3 format, it is now easy to give a song to a friend while keeping it for yourself. 

The music industry doesn’t want its business to change. If copyright laws were re-written to account for digital copies, the music industry might be in for a disappointing proposition. The very merchandise (Vinyl, Tape, and CD) may not be the “copyrightable” item, and they would not be able to leverage their muscle against a commodity such as a digital file that can be copied almost freely under fair use. 

Encryption 

Beyond copyright we have security, or encryption, to deal with. Programs that circumvent encryption technology are also against the law. But provisions are in place that make it legal when it is done to further technology. This is under legal fire with the DeCSS program that allows copying of DVD movies. The program was created to enable Linux (an alternate operating system to Windows) users to copy movies to their hard drives so they could watch them from their computers. Windows and Mac users have the luxury to watch movies on their computers. But when a programmer figured out how to do it for Linux he was put in jail

Did he break the law by circumventing the encryption on DVD movies? Or did he legally further technology to aid Linux users to play movies on their computers? If the movie industry had just hired a company to write a DVD player that ran under Linux/UNIX would this have become an issue? 

Many questions, but it will end up being the courts that answer them. Our clever programmer posted the code to decrypt DVDs on the Internet. This too is being legally fought. Posting the source code was done under the belief that it was freedom of speech. Is it? 

In fact, does the movie industry and courts really understand what they are doing. This court document lists all the defendants being sued for linking to the DeCSS program. Yet the document links to all the defendants. They are violating that which they are trying to suppress. The movie industry is taking legal action because the source code for the DeCSS program was posted on line, yet this court document has the source code in it. The movie and the music industries need to understand what they are up against before they end up suing all 13 million people that have ever downloaded a song or downloaded a movie

The RIAA, not to be out done, also sued a web site for linking. This bring up an interesting dilemma. The World Wide Web was, and is, founded on hyperlinking. The MPAA & RIAA want to make it illegal to do that which the Internet basis its core functionality. Do we even have laws on hyperlinking? If the New York Times or Washington Post linked to a site with the DeCSS program as part of a news story would they be liable for damages to the movie industry? 

That may be the case. In the trial against 2600.com it was determined that they violated copyright law by posting the DeCSS program and then linking to the program after removing it from their site. This could have lasting repercussions if it holds up under appeal. 

Morality 

What about morality? Is it immoral for me to download a song off the Internet? After all, the music industry has been over-charging me for CDs for years. They have lobbied to prevent the electronics industry from allowing us to create digital copies of music for personal use (Remember DAT tape?). 

Maybe it is immoral, but maybe it’s justified. Is it immoral for a record label to put out a CD with a bunch of filler songs when they know we only want the one hit from the album, and then charge us an exorbitant amount for the CD? 

When I was growing up (I am about to date myself) I would buy singles (45s) and record those onto tapes so I could listen to them in my car. We don’t have any regular way to do that now. I had friends hear the tapes and wanted copies. I thought nothing about this at 17 years old, and made a couple of copies for some good friends. In fact, I don’t ever remember hearing the word piracy in those days. 

Today there are very few songs released as CD singles. And I haven’t seen one I’ve liked in at least 10 years. (The last one I saw, and liked, was a Steppenwolf CD “single” that had Born To Be Wild and Magic Carpet Ride. That was very cool getting their two best songs for the price of two songs. It was one of those 3” discs that needed an adapter to play in most CD players. Unfortunately, I lost it. Does anyone have it? I would be willing to buy it from you.) 

Is the music industry acting immorally by not releasing fairly priced singles anymore? That is a tough one. I was paying a buck or two for a big vinyl disc a couple of decades ago for 2 songs. I don’t see the trouble with doing that today. 

How Far Does Piracy Go 

What about other aspects of piracy within the music business? Take lyrics for one. Is it illegal to post the lyrics to a song? Apparently it is, since the International Lyrics Server was shut down for doing this. This is a very fine line indeed. ILS posted the lyrics that listeners, people like you and me, figured out by listening to the songs. I downloaded some of the lyrics off their site before it was shut down. A few songs had errors in them. I could tell. So the lyrics were not necessarily accurate. How is that different from having a friend telling me the lyrics to a song? All ILS did was put this on a large scale. 

Who does this hurt? The artists? I doubt it. They would rather have people singing along with their songs. There is a better chance people will buy the music if they are willing to go through the trouble to get the lyrics to sing along with it. 

BTW... ILS is back up, but in a much different way. The last time I looked at them they had an unusual way for you to get the lyrics to a song. They displayed the words in a “presentation” style, over a few pages. Unfortunately, I cannot read that fast. The pages are also blocked from cut & paste and viewing their source, so you can’t save the text. 

The music industry also went after the Online Guitar Archive that was posting the sheet music to play songs. I don’t know if this was material available for purchase. Lyrics are not generally available for purchase. But music score sheets tend to be available for purchase, and someone is losing something if it is posted illegally. 

The record industry uses strong-arm tactics to maintain control. But they are losing control, otherwise MP3s would not be as popular as they are.

Alternatives to MP3 

The biggest problem with MP3s is their lack of copyright protection. There is nothing in the file format to prevent someone from making copies of the songs to give away. Other formats are trying. AT&T is behind a2b and there is Liquid Audio. 

Microsoft introduced a file format that would allow encrypted songs to be downloaded from the Internet. These files would not be able to be played by someone other than the person that downloaded it. This is the direction the RIAA would like to go. In fact, Microsoft teamed up with Cirrus to create a chip set that can be installed in devices to play Microsoft Media files. 

However, three days after Microsoft released its software a program called “unfu**.exe” was put out on the Internet that removed the copy protection from the file. Thus allowing free copying of music stored in Microsoft’s format. Oops! 

You can read more about this program here. One conspiracy theory I have heard is that the government won’t let any company develop an unbreakable encryption because the government needs to be able to crack it. And if the government can crack it you know a couple of kids in a dorm room will crack it. Never underestimate the ability of a few good programmers to crack into something, as evidence by the recent hacking of Sega's Dreamcast. If this theory is true it will be a very long time before downloading songs legally will be commonplace. 

Earlier I mentioned Real Jukebox from Real Networks. They have been the leaders in streaming audio for some time. In fact, they are probably in the best position to overtake MP3. Yet their Real Jukebox also plays and creates MP3s. To help protect against piracy they lock songs that are created with their software. This lock prevents you from copying and playing the MP3 file to another computer. 

However, they recognize the need to perform backups of your hard drive. To this end they have the ability to turn off the lock. When you do this you get a warning message telling you about the illegality of copying songs you don’t have the copyrights to. 

Real Networks gets around the piracy issue with a lecture. Do they think they are really going to get anyone to care about it? If a guy was planning to give a copy of a song to a friend this warning will not stop him. 

Personally, I think the biggest thing Real Networks did to curtail piracy was to limit recording MP3s to 96 Kbps with the free version of the program. The standard by audiophiles is 128 Kbps. This means that Real Jukebox creates files of slightly lesser quality than all the 128 Kbps files you could download off the Internet. This would probably get your friend to go to the Internet instead of getting it from you. You can buy the upgraded JukeBox Plus that lets you record songs at higher quality, but die hard pirates don’t want to buy the software. 

MusicMatch’s recent release of version 5.x of their jukebox software allows you to encode MP3s at 128 Kbps with the free version of their program. Version 5.x of MusicMatch also includes the ability to “burn,” or record, CDs from your MP3 collection. I wonder when the RIAA will sue them for coming up with technology that helps circumvent their current distribution business model. 

The alternatives are attempting one thing: they want to keep the music industry happy by controlling piracy. But MP3 is the de facto standard in online digital music, and has a strong following. None of these other formats come close. That leaves illegal MP3s floating around the Internet for some time to come. 

It is my understanding that the SDMI standard the music industry is trying to get established will allow you to make up to 4 copies of the original. This is a little limiting, and most die-hards don’t like being limited at all. Just look at Divx as it pushes up daisies. 

The bigger problem for the alternatives is backward compatibility. I personally have ripped my favorite songs from over 150 CDs to my hard drive. This is over 1000 songs. I would not want to delete all those files and start over. The amount of time it took me to do it in the first place will insure that I buy a device capable of playing my existing files. 

I don’t think I am alone here. This means hardware manufactures will have to “phase in” a new format. That phase in period could be all the pirates need to keep going. If a hardware manufacturer supplies software to convert your existing MP3 collection, as Sony does, then you can use your current MP3 tools and the conversion software to continue “business as usual.” It would just be an extra, but free, step in the process. The alternatives for the makers of these devices are to only play new formats, which would probably not get them many sales, or to support the MP3 format and piracy continues. 

Eventually players may no longer play insecure MP3 files; by then the music industry will have had its business turned upside-down. 

Beyond Secure Downloads, What About CDs? 

The RIAA is also concerned with CDs themselves. Even if a secure format existed for downloading music off the Internet, that won’t stop people from ripping songs off CDs and passing them around. The RIAA wants to add watermarks to CDs as well. These watermarks would make CDs only playable in real CD players and not PCs. 

Who would by a CD that could not work in a computer? This goes against the fair use policy of the Audio Home Recording Act that states clearly people are allowed to make copies for personal use. Copying songs to a computer for the purpose of creating MP3s, and downloading those MP3s to a personal playing device is fair use. As is using a computer to create a “greatest hits” disc from your own collection of CDs. That is the main reason I bought a CD-Writer for my computer. I have a CD changer in my car and all the discs in it are home made copies of songs that I own on other CDs. 

Fortunately, the first experiments in watermarking technology used on CDs failed miserably

Philips has been doing something toward the watermark issue. All Philips CD Recorders (the kind that work with your home entertainment system) have been putting their serial number on every disc they make. This could be used to track any disc made in a Philips recorder to its source. Yes, big brother is watching. 

AOL Time Warner 

Two major events occurred in early 2000 that could have a huge impact on the music industry. AOL announced the merger with Time Warner, and Warner Music announced it is merging with EMI Music

At first this may not seem like it means anything to MP3. But it does. AOL owns Nullsoft and Spinner. Nullsoft makes WinAmp. Spinner is a streaming radio station with a strong following. Gerald Levin, CEO for Time Warner, mentioned these two companies as “jewels” in the AOL Time Warner deal. 

Time Warner owns Warner Music. Warner Music is one of the big five members of the RIAA. Warner Music includes several record labels such as Atlantic, Reprise & Elektra. These labels have serious music talent with names like Madonna, Eric Clapton, Jewel, Phil Collins, Pete Townsend, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, etc. 

EMI includes artists like The Spice Girls, The Beatles, Garth Brooks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and even Frank Sinatra. With this merger, Warner EMI Music will be the largest music company in the world. 

AOL is the largest Internet provider in the world. Time Warner is the second largest cable provider, and owns Road Runner the second largest provider of cable modems in the country. 

Do you see a pattern emerging? If they wanted to, AOL Time Warner could easily start distributing Warner EMI Music’s catalog of talent as part of AOL’s content, both as streaming on-demand and downloadable music. They could do almost anything they want within there own circle of subsidiaries. That alone could drive the market to follow them, or be lost in the trenches. 

Clearly AOL Time Warner has the opportunity to capitalize on the upcoming music revolution if they want. Will They? We will see. AOL & Time Warner announced their plan to keep content and delivery as separate entities within the company. My guess is this announcement was to appease the opponents to the merger. 

I can easily see AOL Time Warner charging a simple “subscription” fee to listen to music. Just think, as AOL users start getting cable modems they are offered full access to AOL Time Warner’s artist’s music for an extra $5 a month. You’ll never have to buy a CD again. Once houses are “wired” with stereos and TVs connected to computers they only need one connection to listen to music throughout their homes. 

Don’t forget that Time Warner also includes Warner Bros. and Warner Home Video. Imagine this subscription service working for downloading or streaming of movies. 

I would not predict that we will all subscribe to music or movies, but the writing is on the wall that it could happen

Where to get MP3s 

I heard a lot of people were disappointed with the Diamond Rio in the early days. Their disappointment came because they read on the box that they could download songs from the Internet. Unfortunately, the only places the Rio mentions are legal sites like MP3.com posting music from small, unknown bands. They were expecting to download the latest Aerosmith song from the Armageddon soundtrack, but couldn’t find it. 

I think this is a common thread. A lot of people get discouraged when they first start looking for songs in MP3 format over the Internet. (Prior to Napster that is) Who would blame them? Try doing a search on MP3 and see how many porn sites you come across. Porn sites are no dummies. They know the massive popularity of MP3 files. Especially among college students that spend too much time on their computers. This is the perfect target for porn - the college kid that doesn’t have a date, surfing the web for MP3s. (Note: MP3 surpassed sex as the most searched for term on the Internet at the end of 1999.

So where do you go to get MP3s? MP3.com of course. O.K., enough of the “corporate” answer. If you are serious about downloading MP3 files try Scour.net, Napster, newsgroups, and ICQ. 

Scour.net uses a feature in Windows to share directories, but allows people to share directories over the Internet, not just a LAN. People “register” their computer to Scour.net and you can search Scour.net’s database of “registered” files. (Always do an advanced search and narrow your focus to MP3s and “Shares.”) 

Since Scour.net lets you search for songs (spelling does count) you can find what you are looking for; assuming it is available from one of the Scour.net registered sites. The sites go on and off line a lot, so you may have to be persistent. But at least you can use it reliably. You also don’t need to register with Scour.net. This means it is a little more anonymous than our next source. 

Scour introduced a new utility called Scour Exchange that is similar to Napster, but I would avoid it until the legal battles subside. Scour's normal search is good enough if you reduce your searches to shares. 

Napster, under fire from the RIAA, is probably the best place to find popular music. When you download and run the Napster software you register with them and designate a directory on your hard drive that you will share with the Napster community. In turn each Napster user is doing the same. At any given time there are thousands of users online sharing MP3 files. 

From my experience Napster is the best tool for people with high speed access. If you have a dial-up modem you may want to stick with the less reliable Scour.net. As a Napster user you are expected to share something back, and although that is fine for high speed connections, you may not like having your limited dial-up bandwidth eaten by other Napster users. With the recent injunction problem, Napster use has risen dramatically as people download what they can before the service might be shut down. 

The next stop is to search newsgroups. The ones I found to be reliable are alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.XXXXs (where XXXX is 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 & 2000). Each decade gets a newsgroup. The traffic on these is high. This means there is a lot of stuff available. But not necessarily a lot of what you want. 

The advantage to using newsgroups is that you can make requests. That’s right... requests. Just post a message to alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.requests with the name of the artist and the song in the header, and ask politely in the body of the message for the song. It works. I have seen requests filled the same day. Think of it as a place to browse for what people are trading, and to ask for something occasionally. 

Another advantage of newsgroups is that it is almost impossible to stop and even more anonymous. If you are hell bent on being a pirate then this is the place to be. The RIAA would have to do a lot to stop the entire newsgroup system in effect for decades (yes, newsgroups on the Internet predate the World Wide Web by a long time). 

Since almost every newsgroup server has a copy of the files, you should be downloading files from your ISP’s own server and reaping the benefit of getting the best possible performance from your Internet connection. 

I personally have not tried it, but I understand that IRC is a good place for die hard MP3 pirates. This will be the final place the RIAA will be able to reach its strong arm tactics. IRC is a chat system and it would be almost (if not) impossible to catch anyone using it to trade MP3s. Since I have never tried it I will leave it to you to figure out how to do it. I can provide a hint: do a /list *mp3*

Streaming MP3s 

Streaming audio has been around for quite a while. It hit the MP3 arena with Shoutcast’s plug-in and server. These work with WinAmp and allow almost anyone to become an Internet radio station. This had hopes of becoming really cool. However, the music industry hates this too. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has provisions in it that regulates how radio stations can play music and how they must pay royalties. This law applies to online radio stations as well. Due to some restrictions in the law some sites were forced to stop broadcasting. The RIAA in its typical strong arm tactics stopped Floyd Radio, an all Pink Floyd radio station, from broadcasting because of restrictions in the number of songs from a particular artist that could be played in a row. 

Then there are the royalties. Broadcasting music requires fees to be paid to the recording industry. How many people are going to pay to run a free Internet radio station from their cable modem? Not many. 

But Shoutcast is booming. There are a lot of streaming media stations out there. Live365 allows you to stream to their servers, which in turn are the servers that listeners tune into. This means you only need the bandwidth for one steady connection rather than many, and Live365 supplies the bandwidth for your listeners. 

When everyone has high speed access this could be really cool. Unfortunately, this is even more “techie” than MP3s themselves. It will take quite an improvement in the sustained bandwidth between you and the “station” you want to listen to. Internet congestion, or even yours and the station’s connection to the Internet will play a major roll in the quality of your listening. 

I think this will be a niche for quite a while. When home entertainment equipment has Internet connections that let you listen to Internet stations right along side traditional radio stations this will be a huge business. Unfortunately, someone has to pay so expect this to be heavily subsidized with advertising as it grows. 

Spinner is an application that uses the Real Audio format to broadcast over 250,000 songs on over 120 channels. One thing you can’t do with stations like this: get the songs you want when you want them. Here is a quote from Spinner’s web site on this topic: “To play full-length songs on-demand, a broadcaster must have permission from the copyright owner, i.e. the record label. Most record companies are currently not granting this permission for fear that on-demand music will discourage people from purchasing the music.” The RIAA and the record labels rear their ugly heads again. 

What Does the Future Hold? 

So what’s going to happen? I don’t know. I could only guess, but it would be wild speculation. What the hell, it is my article, let’s speculate. 

For starters, the music industry is in for major changes that will make the switch to CDs seem like trading in a new car. The music industry wants to mold the Internet to fit its existing business model. That will not happen. So, the music industry must change to meet the Internet. (Personally I think the music and movie industries should get out of the Internet completely if they hate its “model” so much. But that is the topic of another article.) 

The genie is out of the bottle. Both for downloadable digital music (in MP3 or some other format) and for file trading software like Napster and Gnutella. Between these two items the music industry must make radical decisions on how it will continue to do business in an Internet driven world. The music industry must learn to move at Internet speed (much faster than it has) and treat its customers more fairly. 

A number of things must happen before the music business stabilizes. 

1)    Laws on Copyright, Digital Copying, Fair Use, Free Speech, etc. must be revisited for an information rich world. These laws will need to take into account that the Internet is global, and not just in the United States.

2)    Some kind of micro-payment system must exist that is universally accepted. This system would make it easy and efficient for artists & labels to collect small payments, such as charging 50, 25, or even 10 cents to download a song.

3)    A safe, secure and convenient way to download music must exist that does not restrict a person’s ability to use the music they purchase. 

Assuming the laws get straightened out and we have a secure technology that works well for the actual download, payment is the only real problem. We need a micro-payment system that is easy for both a band to implement for collecting pennies (nickels, dimes, quarters, etc.) for a downloaded song, and is just as easy for consumers to use in buying songs from a multitude of different sources. 

Maybe it’s too late already. How will you get people to start paying for something they have gotten used to getting for free? How much is a song worth after people get used to Napster’s free model? 

According to Hilary Rosen, President of the RIAA, "We sincerely doubt that there would be a market for the MP3 portable recording devices but for the thousands and thousands of illegal songs on the Internet." 

With this kind of attitude we can expect the RIAA to fight MP3s for a long time. If they are too short sited to see the use for a device that can play songs from a massive CD collection then there is no hope the music industry cares about its customers.  

Here are some hard predictions I will make: 

1)    Music will eventually be distributed over the Internet. This does not mean that it will not be sold in stores too.

2)    The music industry will change due to this technology, just as it changed when switching from vinyl to CD.

3)    People will eventually own some form of music “server.” Whether that is using a computer, some kind of set-top box, or a subscription over a high speed Internet connection I don’t know. But people will eventually connect TVs and “radios” to a “server” to play music and movies throughout their homes. 

My hopes, as opposed to predictions, are that the music industry comes up with a way to buy and download music through the Internet, sooner rather than later. This will cause a major resurgence in singles (the part I am most looking forward to). You will be able to buy just the songs you like or the entire CD, but the choice will be yours. 

CD recorders (that plug into your stereo system) will be affordable, easy to use, and connected to the Internet. They will connect directly to cable or DSL like a set-top box, or by connecting through your PC (which in turn is connected to the Internet). You can download songs and burn them directly onto a blank CD, or store them for later use. 

If the RIAA wants to maximize this, they will jump on the streaming media bandwagon and embrace Internet based radio stations. You could have your stereo hooked to your computer... you here a song you like... you push a button and the song is downloaded to your computer and simultaneously recorded to a blank disc in your CD recorder. Your credit card is billed for that one song through an online account you maintain. Easy, convenient, and cheap. 

This will drive up sales in the long run. Artists will sell many more copies of singles, at the small cost of selling fewer full albums. The artists will strive to make more quality songs because that is where the real money will be. The music industry will let Internet radio stations play songs in return for commissions on the sales of the songs through their station. 

Independent artists can also make deals with Internet radio stations to get their songs played without a label. This would be more work for the indie, but it is better than what they have available to them now. The only thing we would need government intervention for is to make sure the RIAA doesn’t use strong arm tactics on radio stations to not play indie songs the way Microsoft has strong armed computer manufacturers from selling computers with an operating system other than Windows. 

Napster should be turned into a subscription service with a flat rate monthly fee or a per song download rate. The flat rate model would require a minimum commitment, say 6 months or a year. That would prevent abuse of the system by joining for one month and grabbing all you can. The music companies could ad “promotions,” as opposed to advertising, to inform people when new artists and songs are available. 

The industry could maintain copies of songs on their own servers connected to the service for “seeding” new songs and for songs that are extremely popular. This would make the cost of promoting new artists almost nil, so we should see a flood of new and interesting music. Music samples (or streaming) would be available for people to get an idea of what they will download before investing the time. Artists would get royalties based on the number of times their songs are downloaded or traded. 

Everyone wins! Hopefully it will happen in my lifetime. 

What do you think? I really want to know.
Bottom