Sound off: Digital Piracy

What’s happened to our old world of recorded music, floppy backups, and grainy VHS tapes? 

Historical perspective helps. It wasn’t so long ago that a “piracy” debate centered around whether we had the right to tape our record collection for personal use. Even after the “fair use doctrine” was promulgated, the record companies insisted on labeling their products with the warning: “reproduction without permission strictly prohibited.”

Some things never change. That was one of them. A very few people would have argued that when we purchased such products, we “agreed” to abide by the copy restrictions. I made “party mix” tapes as a hobby, because I liked them, and to cut down on wear and tear on the old analog LP’s. No one tells me what to do with my music in the privacy of my own home.

The newborn digital software industry picked up the “you agree” concept and repackaged it into a shrinkwrap contract. The modern sight-unseen “contract” is designed to strip ownership rights from the product; your purchase rents or leases conditional permission to run it. CD’s came out, and soon it was possible to make “party tapes”, or even duplicate CD’s in their entirety, with no degradation of sound quality. Now, it is even possible to copy DVD’s, though I cannot understand for the life of me why most consumers would have a legitimate reason for wanting to do so.

The RIAA, the Disney folks, and members of Congress are pushing the case that wholesale duplication and dissemination of of copyrighted material and digital intellectual property is depriving creative artists and content creators of their just livelihoods. This in fact is true, and it’s wrong.

What some propose to remedy this would be to legalize automated hacking of offending PC’s, and electronically destroying the machines. Have they gone insane?

What’s happened is the kids have found ways to beat the system. It wasn’t so much of a problem when you had to buy a tape, set the recording level controls to avoid tape saturation, and patiently nurse your recording through its paces. If a friend wanted a copy, that was real work! Now, it’s a click of a couple of buttons, and I love this convenience, too.

The difference is, I buy all my music. I don’t disapprove of downloading for a small fee (like Apple’s new and successful iTune’s). I’m just a audiophile who likes the best. As an adult, I’m able to pay for a whole CD at a time, too — whereas many of those driving around in their own chopped BMW’s and Accords, are not.

When I play my “ripped” MP3 and wmv sound track files, Windows Media forces my browser to a validation site where I am told the music is not registered to this machine. (I switched to WinAmp). What’s crazy is that some of my CD’s, with hot titles like “Brandenberg Concertos”, were purchased before there were desktop computers.

Audiophiles say the sound of pure vinyl is still better than the best CD’s. One or two more trips to the Windows Media site, and I may go back to vinyl. I know kids are ripping off the system, and it’s become a terrible problem for artists and distributors. I know the RIAA is every bit as cynically amoral as the kids and the “free-everything” crowd charges.

But the rest of us are the ones being forced to pay for all this. We’re the ones who are taking it in the shorts. This is all going to backfire on the industry; people are simply not going to put up with all the restrictions on legitimate digital entertainment. Thank goodness I bought a new stylus for the turntable while we can still get them.

Alex Forbes
© July 1, 2003

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