Passionate hoo-ha about intellectual property: Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "Music Rules."

Published April 4, 2005 9:30PM (EDT)

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After digging out his long-abandoned records from basement purgatory (apparently able to go years without listening to "Ziggy Stardust," something I'll never understand), Andrew Leonard shakes off the powerful feelings that he admits come from having actual records (with covers) to hold his music. He decides it's OK that his kids will live in a world where music exists only on computers, MP3 players and so on, since "It's the music itself that carries the most evocative force, not the delivery mechanism."

He may have a point about material possessions, and certainly one about convenience (clearly it's an insufferable burden to get up and flip a record over for many people), but obviously it's not actually the music he cares about. MP3s, and all digitally compressed files, and all files that have been digitally copied off of records and, inevitably, altered, simply don't sound as good as the records do. "Rock and Roll Suicide" or "Gimme Shelter" out of an iPod, or even off the CD remastered from the original meant-for-vinyl master, sound flat, brittle, lifeless, mushy and basically terrible. The albums have presence, bass, warmth, power and detail MP3s will never have.

I guess Mr. Leonard's kids will be OK in a world without record covers, but they -- and Mr. Leonard himself -- clearly aren't in this for their ears. Those of us who are willing to ignore all this file-sharing, ripping, ear buds in your head 24-hours-a-day "convenience" get in return having Gang of Four and the Wailers and Bowie actually sound good.

-- Olivier Strauch

In all the recent hoo-ha about "intellectual property" (a concept that should not go without challenge in its own right) we have all been led down a garden path, where what is at stake is whether or not we should be able to share with each other digital copies of music. Might I suggest that this entire episode be turned around?

Look at it this way. For the past few decades the vast majority of us have been replacing our vinyl music collections with CDs. Now, anyone who's ever looked on the packaging of their CDs has seen the legalese that states that we have not actually purchased the music, only a license to play that music. What we have purchased is a small plastic disk and a cheap plastic box (together worth well under a dollar), with most of the money we've spent (often almost 20 times the cost of the media and packaging) going to purchase the license to play that music and feed their corporate distribution network. Very little goes to the artists who create the music. The costs of producing and distributing CDs is much less than half that of vinyl -- the difference is pure profit for the record companies, yet the prices of music went up, not down when the industry moved to CDs.

Let's remember that. We have purchased not the plastic, but the license to play the music. And when we buy digital music we are purchasing licenses from the music industry. In many cases, say in the case of BlueNote-era jazz, the artists and engineers who created that music are long-since dead, and the complete "property" is now "owned" by the recording industry. Yet, these back-catalog jazz CDs cost as much as contemporary artists. And in many cases, we've owned the vinyl, the CD, and now we are being asked to purchase the digital file.

Let's turn this around. It's time to demand the legal rights to listen to the music we've already purchased in digital form rather than being forced to repurchase it. For all music licenses that each of us can demonstrably show we already have purchased, we should be able to legally demand that the music companies supply us with digital copies of that music for a fee based on the costs of digital transmission, administration and a profit commensurate with those costs. Since the per-gigabyte cost of maintaining an online server with hundreds of gigabytes is extremely low, if we added reasonable profit margin over the administrative cost we might be looking at what? Something like 50 cents per CD maybe?

So if one has hundreds of CDs, we should be able to take them into a record store, wand their bar codes, and receive digital keys to be able to download that music. We already own the rights to it. The local record store would get its cut of the profits of the transaction. We already have purchased the rights to listen to that music, according to the music industry itself. Now, if we've all been misled in purchasing CDs, and those licenses are no better than the few pennies of plastic they're printed on, then we've been horribly ripped off.

But then again, a lot of people have been feeling that way about the music industry for a very long time. Including the artists themselves.

-- Murray Altheim

In "Music Rules," Andrew Leonard writes, "When an individual downloads a copy of a new Ashlee Simpson single from a P2P network without paying for it, that is a violation of copyright. Just how morally wrong that might be is a debatable issue. But its illegality is not."

In fact, downloading unlicensed music on the Internet has never been determined to violate U.S. copyright law. Only uploading has. This is an important distinction that often gets lost -- the RIAA has never sued anyone for downloading music from a P2P network, only for sharing music. In fact, in Canada courts have explicitly ruled that while uploading is illegal, downloading is not. The same thing may or may not happen here.

-- Nathan Kennedy

As I was reading Andrew Leonard's piece on MGM vs. Grokster, something occurred to me. Isn't this the exact same thing that Congress absolved the gun industry from recently? I seem to recall the logic behind that law was that gun makers couldn't possibly be held responsible for what people did with their product. So let me get this straight. A company providing a legitimate service that could be used to violate copyright is liable for how its customers abuse said service, but the company that provides a product whose sole purpose is to launch a high-velocity hunk of metal isn't? My brain hurts.

I hate to be cynical, but it sure does seem like laws are being creating of, by and for big campaign donors these days. In the future, my children won't have the right to share a song with their friends. But if one of those friends shoots them, at least no gun company exec will have to suffer. And that's what's really important, right?

-- Bill Hanna

I thought this was a well-written, entertaining and important article. The strength was Andrew Leonard's ability to accurately describe the relationship of this potential judgment and its affect on our lives; finally putting a face on those who will be affected the most by this ruling.

After finishing the article I was very tempted to forward a copy to all of the Supreme Court justices, but since I'm not sure if they own Salon.com Premium accounts I wasn't sure if this would violate any P2P/Internet copyright laws ...

-- Scott Hillier

I very much appreciated Andrew Leonard's piece about the Grokster case.

But when Leonard says he feels sorry for the record company executives, he might take a second to mention the artists who won't receive royalties for their music.

The recording industry is in crisis. It has stifled creative artists and gouged the public for too long. People have a right to their anger at record companies. But the artists are paying the price even more than the executives, most of whom cycle quickly through their corporate jobs at the Media Megaliths of the 20th century.

For every Andrew Leonard who pays to use iTunes to download his music, there are 10 kids in his children's generation who believe music should be free.

Music isn't free. The amount of time and effort artists put into learning their craft, the equipment they use to record, and then the editorial process of picking only the good stuff takes time, and money. Why should their work be free?

Also, as every Web denizen is aware, there's a lot of junk on the Web. This is because there are few editors. Salon is good because there are editors picking the best stuff to present. I don't have time to listen to thousands of snippets of new pieces. I have a couple of trusted sources, and pay to receive what they think I might enjoy.

When the music industry makes the shift to online A&R, which it will, that will open up the process to more bands. The industry will evolve.

Stifling digital innovation would be a mistake. However, stifling artists who won't be able to earn enough money from their work to focus and develop would be an even greater mistake.

-- Nick Raposo

I think it is absurd to say free song downloading on the Internet should be protected just like videocassette recorders. File downloading has no limitations of physical media, so it is being done millions of times a day. This makes it much, much worse of a problem than VCRs. Napster was not allowed by the courts because it used a central database, while peer-to-peer should be OK because the database is decentralized? That is stupid. Just because it is a group effort doesn't change things; it is still stealing.

Now that there are companies like iTunes to sell music downloads, no file-downloading software should be allowed when it is being used mainly for stealing copyrighted music or videos.

-- Phillip Davies

As a resident of a music publishing town, I have to say that this issue has always had a whiff of greed disguised as artist's rights for me. That's because I'm a writer, too -- albeit of a different kind. My same songwriter friends who would get indignant when I'd tape a favorite CD or copy MP3s onto my computer think nothing of sharing magazines, Xeroxing an article they didn't write, or even copying and pasting articles they saw on the Internet and e-mailing them around.

When I google my name today I am amazed at how often my work appears on Web sites I've never even heard of. These days no one has a problem with copying a review or article I wrote and putting it on their personal Web site, without ever asking permission. Apparently, copyrights are relative. Artists and record companies are among the worst offenders at this. So excuse me if I'm not crying in my hankie over Aimee Mann's lost royalties. Join the club, honey.

The truth is, the music industry has battled this issue in one form or another for decades. Back in the '60s when cassette tapes for the consumer market first appeared, my father was involved in trying to resolve a compromise among labels, consumer groups and electronics manufacturers. Although my memory of this is hazy, I seem to recall that the solution was to put a tax on all blank cassette tapes sold, which would then be returned to the record companies and distributed to copyright holders. Congress took up the issue in the mid-'80s, but no bill was ever passed.

Andrew Leonard is right: based on history, it's clear that the music business will never eliminate this so-called piracy. "New distribution protocols will continue to be devised and people will continue to use them." The industry needs to realize this fact and find another way of recouping any lost royalties. Restricting the distribution of creative material is simply not in our culture.

-- Lisa Zhito

The downloading music controversy is, on the face of it, an absurdity. Were any action to be taken in the U.S., foreign music distributors, such as all the Russian ALLOFMP3.com, which charges 5" per tune and has a vast catalog of contemporary pop/rock/etc. music, cannot be controlled by any domestic court. The internationality of the Internet makes copyright issues immune from quick and easy judicial edict.

-- A.N. Feldzamen

The fetish phobia the record and film industry has about file sharing is highlighted by some of the artists representing each side of the argument. Pro file sharing: Brian Eno and Chuck D. Both etched musical history by pushing boundaries and emphasizing the artistic vision toward innovation rather than concentrating solely on a commercial package. On the other side of the aisle Don Henley and Sheryl Crow. Henley, of the legendary Eagles, is the perfect poster boy for the tried and proven formulaic (though extremely well-executed) songwriting, and Crow is a modern counterpart of the Eagles' hooks and styling. So it is easy to see where the future lies. If progressives and visionaries see the light and the establishment is screaming that the sky is falling I would walk toward the light without an umbrella

-- Giorgio Bertuccelli

I would like to respectfully object to your use of the term "thievery" to characterize file sharing over the Internet. While such activity is considered copyright infringement, I am not aware of any circumstances under which making a perfect copy of something, not depriving the owner of the original, is considered theft under either law or definition of the word.

While this may seem an unimportant semantic distinction, the word "theft," in our culture, is a loaded one, carrying with it the idea of some type of deprivation of property -- whether it be the thief who breaks into my car and steals the CD player or the thief who holds up a liquor store at gunpoint, it carries a very loaded and scary image.

Many disagree with the actions that the (RI/MP)AA have taken against their own customers, and continue to. To characterize such an act as "theft" forestalls any type of reasonable debate -- any rational person would wish to stop a theft. I believe that most journalists are concerned with characterizing any action as properly, explicitly and unambiguously as possible. I urge you to correct this story to state that the action taken is "copyright infringement" (a relatively undisputed point), and thus frame the debate and story in the proper light.

-- Todd Allen

I am a songwriter. I write songs for a living. When people like you download my songs for free, you make it impossible for people like me to make a living. Ever think about that?

-- Arnie Roman

By Salon Staff

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