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An Issue of Security

Andrew C. Thomas

To all new students: Welcome to MIT. When you move into your new rooms and set up your computers, make sure your lawyer is on speed dial.

Legal battles seem to permeate and shape MIT life. The decision to have all freshmen live on campus was largely determined by a settlement relating to the death of Scott Krueger ’01, and the class of 2007 is the second stage of this particular experiment.

Likewise, a new legal battle involving MIT is making national headlines. The Recording Industry Association of America is making a reputation for itself as the Thomas Jefferson in the fight against digital pirates, though to some it seems more like Darth Vader. The RIAA’s tactics are broad and sweeping, going after any and all unsanctioned distribution of digital music files with unbridled zeal. Recently, it touched local life when the RIAA subpoenaed MIT for the identity of a student who they claim was distributing MP3s over the popular (and powerful) file-sharing utility KaZaA.

MIT’s first defense to the action was along procedural lines; the subpoenas were not issued by federal courts in Boston. The next defense will inevitably highlight the unreasonable search of the computer believed to distribute copyrighted material, but who knows how well that will hold up in these days of USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T.ism. Thankfully, the notorious solution proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch -- the outright destruction of computers carrying unsanctioned copyrighted material -- gives new meaning to the term “grossly unconstitutional” and should never again see the light of day.

But this sort of problem is omnipresent, reaching far beyond the walls of MIT. Lawsuits and intimidation are short-term approaches, and KaZaA, like Napster before it, is a relatively short-term medium.

There can be only one true solution to the widespread problem of copyright violation: a compromise that respects the rights of artists to their work and of consumers not to be raked with bloated costs.

The advent of new media should have been a blessing for both artists and record companies alike. After all, any who are brave enough to attempt to exploit the new technology would have the most to gain when it became mainstream. Instead, we have the worst of it, where consumer and company battle in court.

As it stands, the industry is fairly anti-competitive. Artists are bound to production companies exclusively, giving the latter a monopoly of services, no matter how small. Artists receive only a small percentage of sales, and companies control their fate until their pound of flesh, in musical form, has been extracted.

In its spirit, copyright is about respecting the wishes of the artist. It should be a shield of protection, not a cruise missile to be fired at whim by a conglomerate of record companies.

Conglomerate, though, immediately suggests collusion, and if any line of defense available to the pirates has presented itself, s its antitrust. By challenging the record companies in court to justify anti-competitive behavior, as a group of Internet radio stations has recently done, there is hope that the draconian measures might find a little restraint.

Record companies are certainly anti-competitive in nature. One would be hard-pressed to find successful freelance recording artists, unbound by restrictive contracts. Music freedom advocates (for lack of a better term) constantly reiterate the relative economy of the media themselves as compared to the sale price as a measure of profit margins.

It’s feasible. Apple Computer’s iTunes has proven that music can be sold in a downloadable form at low cost. The next logical step is a new platform for PC-based systems that would continue to develop the medium. If Apple developed compatibility ahead of their competition they might have the opportunity to briefly corner the market. So far, the closest competition seems to be Buymusic.com, which doesn’t have either the ease of use of its Mac counterpart or the pitchman voice of Jeff Goldblum for its marketing campaign.

I’m sure someone remembers when single tune records were the prime mode of musical distribution, a tradition started when vinyl record albums could only hold one song per side. As it stands, this particular market is currently on life support. All would benefit to see this idea returned in full force.

But for the idea to work, both sides have to come together. The RIAA must see that tapping into the pirate market with low-cost, low-production alternatives would yield more than increased profit, but also establish a firm foothold for musicians at all levels to market their work.

Besides, other than a decrease in the sale of blank CDs, already offset by greater demand in the home computer market, what does the collective music community have to lose by trying?