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File Sharing and Downloading Music - Fun and Free But Beware of The RIAA

Published 1/24/08 (Modified 3/9/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

Back in the day, when you wanted to listen to music, you either had to listen to the song off the radio, or you had to visit your nearby record store to buy the artist's compact disc. Each CD usually went for $12-18 depending on the album's popularity and you had to store your music CD collection in a plastic shelf case. As your CD collection grew you usually had to buy more cumbersome storage. Because the CD surface was itself easy scratched, you always had to take great care when handling the discs to minimize damage.

Everything all changed during my last few years of high school when the internet arrived to the scene. At first it was only seen as a novelty and used by a handful of people, but gradually the mainstream began to adopt it, recognizing its information potential. The technology started out slow, bumbling along at 56k modem speed on the average home computer. Faster broadband technology was out of the question at the time due to the prohibitive cost. But when I entered college and became introduced to T-1 broadband technology, I knew the age of file sharing had arrived. By then music sharing had become full blown as every campus student had ready access to super fast download technology at their fingertips from on-campus computer labs to broadband enabled dorm room connections.

What Is Online Music File Sharing and How Did It Start?

Napster was the first and biggest free centralized peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing program during my early college years. The downloadable program allowed users to connect to each other online using their computers and swap primarily MP3 music files, ripped from store bought CD's. With the ability to download free songs from Napster, many people started burning their own compilation albums without paying any royalties to the music company or the artist. The popularity of Napster peaked in early 2001 until the company was finally brought down by the music industry through a series of critical lawsuits that successfully proved Napster knowingly committed copyright infringement.

However, since the demise of the free music days of Napster, numerous improved variations have since spawned, including Limewire, Kazaa, Morpheus, and BitTorrent. One of the programs that is still enjoying continued success today as a contributer to free music downloads is the Gnutella-technology based Limwire program. Many people still use Limewire to download free copyrighted songs and videos clips. Suffering continued financial losses from dwindling music sales, the music industry has been trying to go after those who share copyrighted music files. But Limewire has proven to be very difficult to stop due to the program's network architecture. Unlike Napster which utilized a central server, Limewire is very decentralized, and since the program's operated by individual sharers, this makes it extra difficult for any one company to shut the whole system down or limit the flow of its contents. The record publishers have tried to flood the system with dummy files and corrupted fakes to discourage downloads, but their tactic has been met with little success.

The Music Industry and The RIAA Are Making A Big Mistake By Going After College Students For Alleged Music File Sharing

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) represents many of the big music publishing companies and is the face of the music industry's movement to crush those who share copyrighted music files. For the last few years they've focussed much of their efforts towards stopping young individuals from alleged sharing activity, filing lawsuits against college students as well as their schools, demanding that the institution turn over the offending sharer. The RIAA has enjoyed some limited pockets of success with tracking down the identities of some college students and forcing them to pay hefty settlement fees, but on the whole they've not been able to put much of a dent in overall downloading activity. Meanwhile the music industry continues to lose millionaires of dollars in legal fees trying to pursue the endless leads.

The difficulty comes from the nature of the underlying technology. The RIAA can track down individual IP addresses and usernames, as well as where the offending activity originated from, but they are unable to ascertain specific names. Despite the RIAA's continued demands, many universities are refusing to turn over student identification information, claiming that the demands place undue burdens on them to locate the specific offender. Particularly due to the growth of campus wireless networks and the shared nature of dorm rooms, it's hard to pinpoint exactly who performed the alleged sharing activity.

Personally, I think the RIAA and the music industry is making a huge mistake by continuously going after file sharers. I understand they are losing millions every year to this but this is a landmark opportunity that happens every so often that ought to spur companies to innovate. When the Beta and VHS video tapes and later DVD technologies first came out, the movie industry claimed that this would be the end of the film industry. It didn't happen - people started buying the new improved products because they made their lives better. Rather than trying to hold back progress, the RIAA and the music industry need to come up with a more comprehensive and cost-effective way to embrace this new medium of music enjoyment. Like it or not, the music industry will continue to fight a losing battle as music sharing technology continues to improve and become even more elusive. Rather than kicking and screaming about their lost revenue streams, they need to improve and find a way to stop alienating their fans and make music more affordable.

As a side note, I think it's prudent to point out to readers that the RIAA is watching and continues to scope out file sharing networks. However, most of their attention and efforts are aimed at those who share large quantities of files rather than those that download one or two songs here and there.

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