Digital Downloading

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There's a new war waging in middle schools of America. Instead of the "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign, our children are now hearing the "Just Say No to Free Downloading" as brought to them by frightened members of the film industry. We live in extraordinary times.

The film business is trying hard not to repeat the mistakes of the music business, where protecting copyright has become almost impossible.

It wasn't always this way. In the vinyl record business of the 50s, and 60s, there were a manageable number of releases each year. The records, often with only 20 minutes of music on each side, had lasting weight and value to the listener. The rights of the label and the artist were protected.

Then, in the early 70's, the number of releases began to increase. FM radio was born, and it helped change the way we listened to records. Now instead of singles, we listened to the whole album, judging the artist on the vision and scope of their creative endeavor.

When it was time for a new format, the cassette was the perfect answer. The portability factor was extraordinary to generations who had sat around a turntable to hear music.

Enter the mid 80's when CDs came on board. We were so excited! Now we had perfect sound and portability! Plus, the CD had an added value of time. It brought the potential of CD recordings to 74 minutes with no sides. That development changed the way we listened and judged the body of work.

By the late 90's, it became apparent that it was child's play to replicate cds perfectly. At this point, record companies should have been paying much closer attention and working together to solve the problem. We weren't.

Consumers began to understand that these 70 minute cds only had a few great songs. They became overwhelmed at the enormous volume of records now being pushed out by labels each year. They were under enthusiastic about what they were hearing. Some blamed the record companies, and some blamed the artists. Suddenly, listening to music before you bought it by downloading, didn't seem so terrible.

Say the word downloading to some, and you'll get a speech about stealing. I'm not at all convinced that this is the way to address the situation. It's really quite understandably why there's so much downloading going on. Even more important, I don't believe there's going to be a way to stop it. It's too widespread and built on convenience and efficiency.

Of course, the problem isn't actually downloading, it's free downloading. How we got to this place is actually based in the history of MTV. Back in the early 80's when MTV came on board, the labels hadn't realized the far reaching economics of spending millions of dollars on videos, only to fund a television network they didn't own. With music downloading, labels didn't want to make that mistake twice. Instead of focusing on providing their music to as many legitimate sites as possible for a fee, labels focused on controlling the means of distribution. They sought to build their own downloading sites. But they weren't in the online marketing business and they failed to capture the market. Meanwhile, music lovers, some turned off by the labels' approach, began downloading with impunity. The result is the massive burning you read about every day.

Rather than focusing on the just say no approach, I can't help but wonder if the music industry should look to the means of access, in this case being the Internet Service Providers, or ISP, for help in developing viable distribution channels for downloading. Everyone burning has to pay for access to an ISP. Why not charge a toll for complete music downloading. In some ways, it's a radical thought, because it would mean retailers would take a secondary role in the distribution of music, but that seems to be happening anyway. What it does mean is that labels and artists would then be compensated for their time and effort in a way that would continue to develop the art form as we know it. And at the end of the day, that's what's most important.

This is Celia Hirschman for On The Beat.