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French Version

The secret life of a digital pirate

Access to music and movie files secreted away on numerous often anonymous computer file servers around the world provides many a savvy web surfer access to previously unavailable or economically out of reach entertainment.

JORDAN (Star) - This year, for the first time in a decade, the American music industry suffered losses. The artists, or the artistry, by most standards has never been lower, but industry experts point their fingers at the new on-line digital domain as the culprit behind their decline. If only it were so simple. The film industry is not in agreement, approaching the challenge a bit differently. Regardless, the internet has provided a tremendous challenge for intellectual copyright. Artists, and much more specifically, their management and representation are hard-pressed to find solutions.

As economies continue to expand, becoming part of the greater global marketplace, access to music and movie files secreted away on numerous often anonymous computer file servers around the world provides many a savvy web surfer access to previously unavailable or economically out of reach entertainment.

The majority of the files involved, at present, are part of the massive coffers of first world entertainment beamed and broadcast to the remotest corners of the globe. The tremendous exposure afforded by big budget blockbuster movies and the PR onslaught led by the likes of Britney Spears and Destiny's Child has been very effective. People have really developed a hankering for the George Clooney's, Julia Roberts' and Christina Aguliera's of the world. But these mainstream stars are only the smallest part of the motivation.

Since the introduction of the compact disc over 20 years ago, consumers have complained about the exorbitant costs of the new format. Consumer advocates suggested the music industry was taking advantage of what were the known superlatives of the medium to soak the public while they could. Everyone expected costs would decline over time as the compact disc became 'the' format. It just didn't happen.

Near this same time the movie industry was alarmed over the arrival of the videotape recorder, a device they were certain spelled their doom. They claimed consumer copying of copyrighted works would kill them for sure. It was a similar song to that sung by the music industry about audiocassette recorders. The movie industry's solution was to release videotapes with a street price of some 70JD per title, really only making them viable for rental outlets, or die-hard film buffs.

The movie industry found they just weren't selling many videotapes to consumers; tapes were being bought by what became the missing link in the supply chain: Rental outlets. Consumers could not afford, and in many cases would not want to buy a videotape they may only watch once. Rental outlets were able to pay the high costs and recoup the money many times over by repeated rentals. The connection was made and slowly the movie industry relaxed as it realized it had found a new, tremendous outlet for its wares. Over time a video's price dropped to the point movies could be handed out with Happy Meals at McDonald's.

But the music industry fortunes were not so rosy. People were continuing to buy music, the new format pushed the old away and although everyone expected to see prices decrease they never did. It planted the seed that made all young pirates grow. Despite the marketing and the increased sales, the rise of new advertising outlets such as MTV and a rash of new methods for selling music the price never came down.

The music industry explained the costs came from an integration of taxes charged for sales to copyright violation, the payment of artists, production costs, and the cost of promotion of the work. That argument fell flat very soon after it was revealed the production costs for CDs was actually less than that of audiocassettes. With all other costs remaining the same CDs were still priced higher. People bought more and more, but their grumbling grew louder. Everyone was waiting for the 'next' thing-a way to break this particular distribution chain.

The minidisc came first but due to its proprietary nature and the tremendous copyright schemes it only proved truly popular with those taping live music. As the internet grew the most important element of making the 'net' truly functional was file size. Large files meant long times on-line waiting for things to upload or download. This was the impetus for the birth of the MP3 compression scheme. It allowed a ten-fold reduction in file sizes, allowing an all-day downloading affair to be completed in an hour or less. With the introduction of high-bandwidth connections the new chain was complete. Now files could be downloaded in minutes. As quickly as you could think of a song, it could be downloaded and playing on your computer in near CD quality.

This all went on without the music industry's okay of course. They had always feared being kept out of the loop. They'd feared it with cassette tape; they feared it with mini-disc and really, nearly kept CD-burning from ever becoming a reality for the same reason. Here was a method that they could not control. And before long, that method had a name. It was called "Napster."

J. Scott Tynes
The Star

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