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How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties

Chapter 4: Dissecting the Boogeyman: How Bad is P2P, Anyway?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 So-called “digital music piracy” comes in many flavors. The music industry’s earliest online targets for litigation, in the mid-to-late 1990s, were MP3-sharing websites, simple platforms that enabled user X to upload a song to a web server, and user Y to download it. As internet technology has exploded over the past decade and a half, fueled by at least three waves of investment frenzy, surging global demand and the unrelenting pace of Moore’s law,[1] enterprising developers have conceived of countless new variations on this theme.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Why is music sharing such a popular application for computer programmers to develop? Since the first MP3 was posted to the web, the challenge of sharing and obtaining digital music has been, as coders would say, “trivial.” Yet it remains perhaps the single most popular function of new programs by independent developers, startups and big software firms alike. This is partially due to the universal popularity of music itself. As I discussed in Chapter 1, music is an integral element of human culture and consciousness, and therefore it should not be surprising that we seek it out in every medium we develop. Music’s ubiquity and universality also make it an ideal test case for software developers to try out new ideas. It’s easy to find content, easy to build a user base, easy to manipulate relatively small files like MP3s, and easy to find existing code libraries, APIs,[2] SDKs,[3] and other building blocks for new software projects.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Yet the allure of music sharing applications can likely be attributed to more than just the appeal of the content or the ease of production. Just as computer hackers are engaged in what the infamous hacker/consultant Kevin Mitnick calls a “constant cat-and-mouse game”[4] with their intended targets and cybersecurity forces, music software developers and their user base are always looking for ways around the legal, technological and social roadblocks that the music industry erects in cyberspace. Whether it’s developing a method of sharing that falls on the legal side of the latest court decision or developing a method of decryption that cracks the latest form of DRM, the fundamental psychosocial pull of music, combined with the unique thrill of resisting the imposition of authority, has helped to generate a hothouse environment in which music software innovation has flourished. In other words, the industry’s own efforts at cracking down on unlicensed music distribution have been a crucial element in driving both software developers and music fans to explore newer and more esoteric methods of sharing.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This hasn’t stopped the music industry from trying, nor discouraged it from branding an ever-wider range of activities and technologies as “piracy.” Yet the poster child for the industry’s economic and strategic woes continues to be its bête noire, peer-to-per (P2P) file sharing. Even in 2012, more than a decade after the service was shut down and then sold to major label owner Bertelsmann, RIAA chief Cary Sherman published a blistering op-ed in the New York Times, tracing the origin of his industry’s malaise to the 1999 launch of Napster.[5] Dubious though this claim is, it remains a vital element in the music industry’s narrative of its own decline, which in turn is foundational to the industry’s calls for more sweeping copyright powers, as well as enhanced surveillance and censorship of digital communications platforms.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Yet, as with many of the music industry’s claims, the case against P2P and online music sharing in general is not nearly as damning as it may appear on the surface. It is manifestly true that for some sharers, under some circumstances, P2P is used as a replacement for legal music sales, and therefore has a negative economic impact on record labels, publishers, and some recording artists and composers. More broadly speaking, P2P has also been one of several factors that have undermined the market value of traditional music distribution formats like CDs, by rendering the social practices, modes of listening, and economic models inherent to these older technologies obsolete. But, as it turns out, music sharing has had beneficial effects as well, both economically and socially. For some P2P users, it provides the opportunity to sample music freely before spending money on it. For businesses, it provides a valuable channel for marketing and research. Socially, it provided the first broadly-accessible platform for people to gain access to a significant volume of music beyond their “comfort zones,” contributing to a more sophisticated musical culture that transcends the generic boundaries imposed by the economics of mass production and mass media. And for a great many musicians and composers, it has provided a powerful platform for self-promotion and independent distribution that has allowed them to catapult into broader awareness and/or to take a more active role in their own careers than they would have had in the 20th Century music industry.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Given the range of factors at work, it would be impossible to judge P2P and online music sharing as “net positive” or a “net negative” for the music industry or musical culture overall. Any claims in either direction are likely to be so limited in scope as to be irrelevant, or so biased as to be disinformative. Yet it is possible to take a close look at the technology’s many pros and cons, and in so doing, better to understand its uses and threats to specific parties under specific conditions. This will be my focus for the remainder of the chapter.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [1] A principle coined by Intel founder Gordon Moore, which holds that the amount of computer processing power available at a given price will double every 18 months.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [2] Application programming interface

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [3] Software development kits

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [4] Mitnick, K. D. & Simon, W. L. (2005). The art of intrusion: The real stories behind the exploits of hackers, intruders & deceivers. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley. p. 35.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [5] Sherman, C. H. (2012). What Wikipedia won’t tell you. The New York Times, 2/8/12; p. A27.

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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/piracycrusade/chapter-4-dissecting-the-boogeyman-how-bad-is-p2p-anyway/