By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
Bullies of the Internet
We've all experienced bullies. Whether it be on the schoolyard or in the board room, the experience is always the same. The bully holds the power, real or imagined, and wields that power to get their own way. Seldom do bullies actually follow through on their threats. Usually, the lunch money is forthcoming just at the threat of violence. There are times when an example is made, but most bullies are really cowards in disguise and back down when faced with any real opposition. Their power is in the imagined consequence. It is people's fear which provides bullies their power. As long as they keep the fear alive, they will remain powerful.
The RIAA and Napster in the Internet schoolyard
Because the Internet is a reflection of human society, it is not necessarily surprising that you'd find Internet bullies as well. There is no better example of this lately than the case of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Internet program named "Napster". The RIAA, along with its "muscle" in the form of "Metallica" and "Dr. Dre", have made an example of Napster and are successfully holding the bully power over the rest of the Internet. The club they wield is the threat of a lawsuit.
The RIAA is such a successful bully that they have most of the Higher Education community in the United States fairly well cowered. Napster traffic is complained about, rerouted, or blocked, in some cases in the name of Internet bandwidth. I hate to tell you, but if you give a young technology-savvy population uncontrolled access to bandwidth they will figure out a way to use it. If the bandwidth hog is not MP3 files, then it will eventually be video or any number of yet-imagined technologies. Napster isn't the only way to exchange MP3 files, yet it is the one currently targeted. In spite of the "legal implications" of Napster, the truth is that the technology is not the perpetrator. People violate intellectual property laws and they can use any number of technologies to do so, Internet or otherwise. Yet the RIAA currently chooses Napster to rough up in the Internet schoolyard.
Whose lunch money is it anyway?
This won't be the only time we see an Internet bully pop up. It is interesting, however, to analyze this particular case, because it illustrates who holds the power and what is behind it. What's behind it is a whole lot of money. The RIAA represents "companies that comprise the ... national music industry..." and claims "...to protect intellectual property rights worldwide and the First Amendment rights of artists." If you look at their list of members, you'll recognize a lot of names of record companies and distributors, that is, a lot of commercial and popular record companies.
I have to admit that as a creative artist myself (a composer of orchestral concert music) I have no sympathy for violators of intellectual property rights. I just can't believe any sincerity on the part of the RIAA in this regard. I'm sure they do protect property rights, but their interest is much more in the property which fills their pockets and not out of any altruistic principle. As an example, there is a television commercial for Philips Electronics which features someone recording their own "CD mix" from apparently commercial CD sources. I have yet to hear the RIAA decry Philips for airing a commercial "...aiding and abetting wide-scale piracy....", RIAA CEO Hilary Rosen's description of Napster.com's behavior. If you know anything about the electronics industry, you know that Philips is the inventor of CD technology, and licenses that technology extensively to Sony, which just happens to be a prominent name (several times over) amongst the RIAA membership list.
Money talks (or hires high-priced lawyers to do the talking). The question remaining is, amongst the landscape of MP3 technology and the myriad of software which supports the creation, distribution, and rendering of MP3 files, why Napster? The answer is simple. Fear. Like most bullies, what the RIAA fears most is a loss of their power. Napster represents what the RIAA and its members fear most. A loss of control over the production and distribution of commercial music.
Imagine for a moment that the phonograph record was never invented. Musicians would make their living as they once did: performing for audiences of people. Their income would depend upon how many people would be willing to pay to hear them play (by the way, this is still the case for the large majority of those who choose to make music performance their profession - the RIAA "artists" represent the minority). Enter the Internet and a program like Napster. Suddenly, musicians can distribute their music worldwide for just the cost of production (a minimal cost, considering that any garage band these days can and often does produce their own CD).
As we've seen time and time again, the power of the Internet is its ability to harness the intellect and energy of a worldwide community. On the Internet, the free flow of information puts power in the hands of the individual and makes useful information available to the whole community. Internet music distribution does not involve any cost for the production of media, any cost for the distribution and sale of media, any cost for marketing, etc. In our thought experiment, instead of putting control in the hands of those with the money to front the production, distribution, and marketing costs, musicians would keep control over their own music. Distribution of music would allow some popular musicians to increase their popularity and thus increase their income from additional and larger bookings. The "music industry", however, would not be a large money machine which disproportionately provides income to a small group of "artists" who place themselves under the control of that industry.
Facing the reality
It is no wonder that the RIAA is scared. Napster is something they can't control so they must squelch it. The same thing was unsuccessfully tried by the film industry when the VCR was first introduced (now the film industry makes a large chunk of money on the rental and sale of video tapes). Unfortunately, digital audio tape (DAT) technology was successfully torpedoed in the United States by requiring special copy protection features. This kept the price of DAT high and the utility low, especially for those like me who could have used such a technology in support of production of intellectual property which has more artistic than monetary value. The VCR proves, however, that technology can create a new market for making money. The problem for organizations like the RIAA is that it might not be their members making the money.
This is not meant as an endorsement of Napster. The fact that if you install it, you unwittingly provide access to your hard drive to the entire Internet is downright scary to me. There is, however, a need to recognize and confront bullies when we find them and the RIAA is certainly acting the role at the moment. There is no doubt who will win given any traditional course of events. The RIAA and its record company members have much more money for lawyers than does a bunch of talented startup technogeeks (and I mean that in the best sense) like Napster.com. Just don't be fooled about what motivates this confrontation. And remember, if you don't stand up to the bullies, they will end up running everything.
Comments, Questions? Send them to Philip Baczewski.