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A Master Plan to Save Downloading

Vivek Rao

Am I really having this conversation? Am I actually discussing with a friend how maybe it’s time for people to start cutting back on the music downloading now that the threat of being caught and disciplined is finally tangible? Where did everything go so horribly wrong?

Just four or five years ago, as a sophomore and junior in high school, the MP3 entered my life. I’m not your typical MIT student; my technological prowess and awareness are stunningly limited, and it took me a bit longer to catch on than most, but once I finally grasped the notion that I could use Napster to bring just about any song I could think of onto my own computer, I was hooked. In retrospect, my dial-up connection at home was painfully slow, but at the time, ignorance was bliss. Downloading music at snail’s pace was still infinitely faster than my previous alternatives, and I’d snag three or four songs a day for months on end.

Within no time, acquiring free music via the Internet became second-nature to the point that I dared to think of what I had done years before. College and Ethernet transformed this activity into a higher art form, and the idea that I could actually start playing a song just seconds after it popped into my mind was as stunning as it was heavenly. Dreams of slowly amassing a vast collection of music over the course of my lifetime filled my head on occasion, and nothing it seemed, would ever get in the way. Until recently.

Fast forward to 2003, and the Recording Industry Association of America slapping lawsuits on some 261 of the nation’s most prolific music pilferers (yes, music downloading is, sadly, a form of theft). My gut instinct -- that the likelihood of being named by the RIAA is tiny, at most -- finds justification in the statistics. According to some reports, MP3 file sharers are more likely to get struck by a bus than they are to face legal action for their use of KaZaA, Morpheus, and other services. To my knowledge, even in my most frantic moments, the only part of the MBTA Number 1 likely to hit me is the nasty pollution. Still, my curiosity is in the future. At some point, regardless of how convenient, functional, and entertaining music downloading is, its repercussions, both legal and moral, must be weighed carefully.

There are a number of people out there who view the RIAA as nothing more than a greedy organization determined to squeeze the common man, and this perception has only been strengthened by lawsuits against children as young as 12 years old. However, in actuality, we must bring ourselves to understand the fact that the recording industry has been dealt a serious blow by the advent of the MP3, and as it staggers along, it is only natural that it attempt to fight back by making copyright protection mechanisms as effective as possible. This is not to say that everybody responsible for filing the recent lawsuits is struggling to put bread on the table, but for every stunningly rich yet disgracefully greedy band like Metallica, there are hundreds of artists out there who could really use the additional revenue that would stand to be generated by increased CD sales.

I already know the argument that’s on the tip of your tongue. You’re going to tell me that music downloading actually enhances record sales by exposing people to music with which they might not normally be familiar. While there’s some truth to that, I ask you to be reasonable. Many people will purchase around, say, a half dozen CDs per year, and granted, at least half of them they probably would not have splurged on were it not for hearing the songs through the Internet. But think of the fiends out there -- trust me, everybody knows a handful of these people -- who download and download until the cows come home, while never “wasting”money on actually buying a disc or two. Get enough of those people online, and it’s easy to see why the music industry is up in arms.

I’m not about to sit here and wax poetically on the merits of abandoning music downloading and embracing a purer, more conscience-friendly lifestyle. In fact, I’ve got some Green Day and Bob Marley queued up as I type this article. However, what I am looking for is a more satisfying solution to this entire problem. The answer does not appear to be in the haphazard lawsuits being flung around by the RIAA, nor does it seem reasonable for people to continue to download at will without artists receiving any compensation.

The solution came to me the other day. What if downloaders paid the RIAA an annual fee, somewhere on the order of $50? In return, they would be permitted not only to download at will, but also to receive $50 in credit towards the purchase of music CDs, cassettes, and any other medium the future may provide.

The effect of such a system would be to encourage a baseline of spending on music, while also allowing legal efforts to be focused against those downloaders who enter a record shop only to stock up on CD-Rs.

The industry would be happy. True music lovers would be able to download and buy with a free conscience. And the scrubs would face the legal music. Think about it; it actually makes some sense.