Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Extinction level events in digital music

When there's billions of dollars on the line, large media corporations will stop at nothing to eliminate threats to their business models, no matter what the cost to our culture. Modern media thrives on technological innovation, and yet the past few years have seen an increasingly large effort to stifle innovation by trade organizations (RIAA, MPAA) and the media conglomerates they represent. These bureaucracies are unable to adapt to the new digital business landscape, so they use lawsuits and legislation in a desperate attempt to prevent their own obsolescence. The result of this corporate meddling is that consumers are denied access to life-enhancing media technology, and artists are shut out from having a hand in deciding the fate of their own work.

Thankfully, there are powerful organizations to protect the rights of consumers and artists. Perhaps the most active and effective in this regard is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Besides providing exhaustive coverage of the issues surrounding the media industry's difficult transition into the Information Age, the EFF actually initiates court cases in a fight to protect our online rights. Though there are several other excellent organizations

As part of their campaign to educate the public by distilling complex digital issues into easy-to-digest messages, the EFF released the Endangered Gizmos list earlier this year. The list documents technological breakthroughs that are being threatened with extinction by profit-hungry lawsuits and legislation. Most of these threats use copyright infringement as an excuse to persecute companies who are merely extending the functionality of cutting-edge media technology. Even though the law on the books states that a technology may exist if it has "substantial non-infringing uses" (which all the items on the list have), these innovations could go the way of the dodo unless organizations like EFF can rally public awareness and support for online rights.

It's telling that four out of the five endangered technologies are music-related. The television and movie industries are certainly shaking in their boots, but the music industry is at the forefront of the digital copyright conflict. The simple explanation is that video is more difficult than music to compress into files small enough for easy transfer between devices. The MP3, introduced in 1990 and made widely popular by Napster, completely undermined all of the music industry's digital initiatives by proving the value of media unrestricted by digital rights management. Despite virtually unanimous support from artists and consumers, the industry elite chose not to build a business model around free access to music. Instead, they used high-powered lawyers and lobbyists to modify the law so they could maintain a complete stranglehold on access to digital music.

Some items on the list will come as no surprise: the file sharing program Morpheus (which bought some time last year when a Federal court judge ruled the service had substantial non-infringing uses) and the digital audio recording program TotalRecorder (which allows users to record any audio played on their computer). However, many people will be surprised that the iPod and Sony CD/RW are grouped together on the list, threatened by scary proposed legislation like the Induce Act, which makes technological innovators liable for "inducing" copyright infringement.

If large corporations continue to call the shots in the digital world, we may be staring at our most innovative technology through museum glass. What's worse, we'll be looking at our media through prison bars.

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