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MP3 sends music industry back to school

Industry Standard

March 1, 2000
Web posted at: 8:26 a.m. EST (1326 GMT)

(IDG) -- Last year, "MP3" replaced the word "sex" as the No. 1 searched-for string on the Internet.

This was no small feat.

Indeed, such surprising supersedure gives an inkling as to why so many music-industry executives, drones, worker bees and billion-dollar babies are now so worked up about the Internet revolution coming to town. In Harvard Law School's Ames Courtroom on Feb. 25, a day-long gathering of industry-folk from across the spectrum "representing both the analysts and the analyzed, the observers and the observed" considered the whats, hows and whys of the coming sea-change.

Organized by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "Signal or Noise?: The future of music on the 'Net" presented four panel discussions and as many individual presentations and lectures on topics ranging from the future of intellectual property protection to the prospects of virtual collaboration.

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Most important to those outside the music world, MP3s have matured the Internet's role in this industry beyond that of other content-oriented businesses. So, as one conference attendee noted, as goes music, so may go other industries three to five years from now.

"Here is a subject -- free music -- which, at its outset, fills people with excitement about the possibilities of new freedoms," said Berkman Center director Charles Nesson in his introductory remarks. "Finally, the dream will be realized. People like Joh n Perry Barlow write pieces about how 'information wants to be free' and within a decade, the walls of proprietary structure will crumble. And the question is, 'Is this real? Or is it so much rhetoric?' That's our question."

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Of course, the question had no easy, or universally agreed-upon, answers. Instead, the day showcased how wide and deep the divide between competing answers is -- and what legal disputes may ultimately begin to bridge that crevasse."

Harvard Law School's Terry Fisher noted those disputes break down into roughly four predator-prey models, all of which the recording industry and its advocacy organization, the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA, are now pursuing: individual users and distributors of MP3s, manufacturers of MP3 players and "pirate Web sites" distributing and facilitating access to MP3s and search engines that direct users to MP3s.

In the conference's briefing booklet, Harvard Law School student Alon Neches goes further to specify "The Great 8: Controversies That Are Shaping the Online Media World." This handful of disputes, he argues, will determine how and under what conditions that $2.6 billion of projected online music sales in 2002 will be divvied up:

RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia Systems: This dispute -- settled out of court, with undisclosed terms " concerned Diamond's Rio portable MP3 player. The fact that the parties found an amicable agreement without going to court may presage yet more partnerships between consumer electronics manufacturers and content distributors, as they realize they have more mutual enemies than enmities.

RIAA v. Napster: This case, filed last December, pushes the question of vicarious liability. That is: Can a piece of software that only allows users to catalog, search for and download MP3s -- a piece of software, incidentally, that is now eating up a significant chunk of Internet traffic today, especially on college campuses -- also be guilty of piracy?

The "RealAudio Controversy": After news spread last fall that RealNetworks was tracking and storing user profiles in contradiction to its own stated privacy policy, two class-action lawsuits were filed citing unfair business practices and consumer protection laws. The resolution of these disputes could set important judicial precedents regarding online privacy.

The University of Oregon "No Electronic Theft" case: Last November, University of Oregon student Jeffrey Levy became the first person to be charged under the 1997 federal NET statute. Whether this case will represent the exception or the rule suggests the degree to which authorities will be willing to enforce the increasingly draconian copyright-protection statutes coming into law.

The Carnegie-Mellon MP3 case: Last fall, 71 CMU students were punished for sharing MP3s through the campus intranet. According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, universities will only be protected from prosecution for potential copyright infringement of their students if they pursue their own students whenever notified of potential copyright violations. As with the University of Oregon case, whether CMU's actions represent a token gesture or a significant policy change on campuses will speak volumes about the institutional response toward newfound Internet freedoms.

Diary of an MP3 beginner
February 3, 2000
Analysis: Why the RIAA sued
January 26, 2000 lets users store their music online
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Can survive the lawsuits?
Januray 2, 2000
MP3 launches user radio stationDecember 10, 1999

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