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The Grokster Decision

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

The record business held its breath this week, waiting for the Grokster-downloading ruling to come down from the Supreme Court. E-mail was flying on Monday as the decision was announced. The ruling brought a welcome sigh of relief to many beleaguered souls in the business.

The Court's decision overturns a lower court ruling that Grokster was immune from law suits for copyright infringement. The new ruling gives many record labels and copyright owners hope that the laws protecting the exchange of music will be upheld in the online world and that financial remuneration for their work could be expected.

Unfortunately, it's way too little too late.

Consider that millions upon millions of people now own the software to file share. In fact, it is estimated that Americans download 6,000,000 illegal files a month among all the sites. With so many companies providing access and court a battle lasting years, the chance of eliminating illegal downloading is little to nil.

Still, the courts have made their judgment and it clarifies to the teachable what the new ethics are, if they didn't know. And in my opinion, this ruling is really about ethics, but not about practice. It's going to take a lot more than a ruling to stop illegal downloading. That's because there's now a lifestyle acceptance that this kind of downloading supersedes judgment.

Teenagers love to share music and they have not been brought up in a culture of buying music. In fact, all the teenagers I know are now in the habit of burning music. Though some go to the legal sites, most of them use Grokster, Bit Torrent, Kazaa, Morpheus or another illegal downloading site. Many of them fire wire their computers together to share music.

If the record business feels they see a light at the end of the tunnel, it's actually the light of an oncoming train. Until the business begins to answer why consumers feel purchasing music is not valuable, burning and file sharing will remain the Achilles heel of compliance in this ruling.

At the core of this issue lies the inevitable question: Are records really worth what they currently cost? Most consumers decide whether a purchase is worthwhile based on whether or not they enjoyed the music. And most consumers have long felt that there are just too many releases out there, with only one or two valuable songs on the disc. There was a time when the entire ritual of listening music was part of the lifestyle enjoyment. From purchasing to putting the vinyl disc on the turntable, to sitting back and enjoying every nuance of the recording...those records are far and few between these days, and the MP3 ritual lacks a certain warmth.

In fact, most young consumers seem to feel that CD's are cluttered with irrelevant songs, and priced exactly the same as premium catalog records, though they don't deliver the same entertainment value. If they're given a choice between free or paying for that experience, which one do you think they'll choose?

In my opinion, acceptance is the problem. Until we can accept that consumers have changed the way they view purchasing music, we're going to spend months and years, and millions of legal dollars, trying to avoid an inevitable change in the business. Acceptance does not mean folding up our chairs and finding another business. Rather it means, digging in and find a valuable way to shift with the times, and build a stronger business in this new paradigm.

Next week, I'll discuss how.

This is Celia Hirschman, with On the Beat on KCRW.

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