Internet Piracy Sails On

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005 10:21 AM

Combatants and spectators in the Internet piracy war are checking their watches right about now. They're waiting for the Supreme Court to issue a decision that could shape the future of how people in America get their entertainment.

If you're reading this, chances are that the court decided not to release a ruling today in the MGM vs. Grokster case. The court typically releases its decisions around 10 a.m. Eastern Time, and as each week passes without a ruling, everyone with a stake in -- or a beef about -- the case gets a little more nervous.

The ruling is important because it could be the last word, at least for a while, on whether Internet file-sharing networks should be held liable for sucking millions of dollars out of the entertainment industry by creating havens for pirates to swap illegally copied versions of movies, music and software.

On one side, the Hollywood studios and the world's largest music labels say that the makers of file-sharing software should be punished for creating the means for pirates to thrive online. On the other, the software makers say they created products with legitimate uses, even if most people use them to violate copyright law. The artists and consumers, meanwhile, set up camp on whatever side proves most morally -- and financially -- expedient (See our backgrounder on the case).

This, of course, is the traditional summary of where everyone stands. A report just released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), meanwhile, says that file-sharing networks are not the sole culprits in the recording industry's problems, and that they could become effective music distribution channels.

"The report said it is difficult to establish a causal connection between the rise of file sharing and a drop in music sales. While the music industry's revenues fell 20 percent from 1999 to 2003, other factors, such as illegal CD copying, might have played a role in the decline, the OECD said," according to an article that ran on Wired.com today. "The report recognized the value of fledgling online stores like Apple's iTunes. Last year represented a "turning point" for legal music downloads, the study said. However, online music distribution only accounted for 1 to 2 percent of music revenues in 2004. The OECD expects to see that climb to 5 to 10 percent of revenues. But growing online sales will depend on expanding catalogs to appease demand and sway illegal downloads, the OECD said. The report also suggested exploring new distribution methods, beyond what the OECD called traditional... transactions."

That line of thinking would send most file-sharing software makers rummaging for their best digital copy of Beethoven's Ninth. If the Supreme Court decided that their primary reason for being was to enable a crime, their only hope of survival would be to marry their accuser. Several file-sharing operators indeed have tried to persuade some of the big labels to embrace them, but outside the somewhat different case of Napster and Bertelsmann, this has not happened.

Wired quoted Adrian Strain of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry on the entertainment companies' overall feeling toward file-sharing networks: "The report does not recognize the vast proportion of the use of P2P [peer-to-peer] services that is infringing copyright. ... (It) fails to acknowledge the extent of the damage that this does to the legitimate industry and oversimplifies the issues surrounding DRMs (digital rights management) in the development of the online music sector."

Doesn't sound like peace is about to break out, does it?

You could argue that the entertainment nabobs aren't in much of a mood to parley with anyone when you consider a recent report from the NPD Group that says more people have "large video files" on their home computers. They're probably not home videos either, as the New York Times reported: "Some files might have come from movie-downloading services like CinemaNow, said Russ Crupnick, president of NPD's music and movies division. But others were clearly not obtained legitimately, he said, including many movies not yet shown in theaters. 'You see things on people's computers that there's no legitimate way they belong there,' he said, because they had not yet been commercially released."

It would be interesting to determine what percentage of those files contained the words "Revenge" and "Sith," especially if the NPD Group were spying on Forrester Research editor and publisher Jimmy Guterman. In a piece written for the Boston Globe, Guterman described his quest for Star Wars satisfaction:

"Like thousands of patriotic Americans, I spent Memorial Day weekend illegally downloading a copy of the new 'Star Wars' movie. I was shocked by how quickly I was able to locate a copy on the Net (less than five minutes) and how long it took for the whole thing to end up on my computer (two days and change -- talk about holiday weekend traffic). There were no secret passwords, no locations known only to the cognoscenti. All I had to do was Point, Google, Pilfer."

Guterman owned up to his action, he said, but criticized other people who "are playing the relative-morality card."

"Read the discussion groups on the websites that host free 'Star Wars' and you can read hundreds of energetic, typo-ridden postings from fans convinced that, as one put it, 'Lucas owes us,'" Guterman wrote. "One Net service that uses the popular file-sharing program BitTorrent serves only unreleased material by established performers, as if distributing unreleased material without permission or payment is somehow more moral than distributing officially released material without permission or payment."

He also said that his sinful Sith viewing didn't exactly sizzle, noting that "Watching Jedi joust across a laptop screen is not the way to enjoy something as loud, fast and blunt as a 'Star Wars' film." Of course, if everyone felt the way Guterman does, we'd all own widescreen TVs or learn to love letterbox. Not only that, we'd insist on watching David Lean's and Stanley Kubrick's movies in the theater, not some crummy, pirated ripoff online. But that's just wishful thinking.

Daddy, What's a 78?

Newsweek ran an online-only piece that gives new meaning to the term "waxing nostalgic." Writer Brian Braiker noted that "For all the fire the recording industry breathes about the dangers the Internet poses to their survival, it's ironic that some of the oldest recordings are once again seeing the light of day thanks to new technology. ... Still, there's nothing quite like listening to a scratchy 78 or feeling its heft in your hand. Just consider this the next best thing."

Braiker covered Smithsonian Global Sound, set for an official launch later this month. It offers 99-cent downloads of Folkways's "massive collection of field recordings, found sound and world music. ... Visitors to the Global Sound site can buy protest songs by Woody Guthrie, traditional Ghanaian drum jams or folks ditties from Norway. And attentive music fans who know that much has been made about the White Stripes' inclusion of a marimba song on their new album, 'Get Behind Me Satan,' ought to consider that a 'marimba' search on the Global Sounds site delivers seven pages of results." The Library of Congress also is placing " hundreds of songs, jingles, speeches and more on its site for free," Braiker wrote.

I Got the Paranoid Cell Phone Blues

Professor Sergio Chaparro thinks that people have an unwholesome addiction to their cell phones. Last year, he told his students that they would have to turn off their cell phones for three days as part of an assignment he gave them while he was an instructor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"'They thought it was going to be a painful experience, and they were right.' Only three of about 220 students managed to complete the assignment. To Chaparro, now an assistant professor at Simmons College in Boston, the experiment confirmed what he strongly suspected was a widespread psychological dependence on cell phones," Cynthia Hubert wrote in an article for the Sacramento Bee. "I think it's critical that people realize their level of dependency, and possibly do something about it,' he said."

Here's more: "Business executives. Soccer moms. Travelers. Teenagers. All of them adore their cell phones. But when does love turn into addiction? A Korean study found recently that nearly a third of high school students showed signs of addiction, including paranoia, when they were without their phones, and two-thirds were 'constantly worried' that they would miss a text message when their phones were off. In Britain, researchers concluded that people are so intimately connected with their cell phones that they see them as 'an essential item, an extension of self.'"

The Bee article said that many people feel overwhelmed by being connected to their phones, pagers, e-mail and handheld devices, but then feel lost, marooned and adrift without them.

Do you have similar stories to share? Do you want to see them published so you can e-mail them to your friends? Write me.

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