Downloading for dollars

Young Reno music-lovers can buy songs online for a buck each, but is it too late to change their online habits?

OK, handcuffs may be overstating the RIAA’s case, but court is a definite risk to those who trade music files without paying.

OK, handcuffs may be overstating the RIAA’s case, but court is a definite risk to those who trade music files without paying.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne and David Robert

As an eighth-grader in Incline Village, he began downloading MP3s using an old Napster-like peer-to-peer program called Scour Exchange. Using a 56-kps modem, it took about an hour to download one song.

“If there was a good connection,” he says.

He didn’t worry about being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for stealing someone’s intellectual property. He was just sampling music he liked.

“Back then, it wasn’t a big deal,” says John Rice, 19, a student in an introductory journalism class at UNR. “But I’m sure my parents would have something to say now if I ended up with a lawsuit.”

Scour was shut down in late 2000. Rice used other peer-to-peer networking programs, like Napster and Kazaa, to exchange music files online.

In all this time, the recording industry, which claims it lost $4.6 billion worldwide last year to illegal file-sharing, never launched a useful offense such as an online store where users could pay to download simple MP3s. Instead, it defends its right to make huge profits on spinning antediluvian plastic discs. (So you know: Of $16 spent on a record-store CD, $5 or $6 goes to the record label and only 50 cents to $2 goes to the artist.)

In September, the RIAA filed suits against a couple hundred alleged music pirates, including senior citizens, kids and their parents. This month, the RIAA announced it’s going after another 500 file-sharing music lovers.

“When the lawsuits started, I got spooked,” Rice says. “Though the chance I’d get caught was slim-to-none, it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.”

A friend recommended iTunes. Rice converted. Recently, he downloaded an entire Less Than Jake album for $10.

“The benefits? I don’t have to worry about the RIAA on my back. And I like supporting small bands like Less Than Jake and Newfound Glory. They’re not like Metallica. … I lost respect for Metallica when they went out of their way to sue kids who were just trying to listen to their music.”

The downside? iTunes doesn’t sell open-source MP3s. Its music comes in a right-protected M4P format that can be played only by using iTunes or Apple’s expensive portable music device, the iPod.

In essence, the student hadn’t really bought the Less Than Jake album. He’d paid $10 for limited access to a digital representation of the music.

To get around this, he could burn his iTunes onto a CD, then—using other software—re-rip the songs as MP3s. That’s the advice offered on an online bulletin board devoted to music “hacking” solutions.

Sound needlessly complex?

That’s what could spell iTunes’ doom, say critics.

Intellectual property is to this era as land ownership was in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s what manufacturing was in the 19th century, says Steven Zink, UNR’s vice president for information technology. “Intellectual property, non-tangible knowledge, that’s the source of wealth in the new age,” Zink says. “And the United States has always been very protective of individual property.”

In the late 1990s, when the file-sharing of digital music first became popular, Zink foresaw legal difficulties. In 2000, Zink deemed Napster a no-no on campus computers. One reason cited was “bandwidth”—downloading files in 2000 sucked up too much of the campus’s server resources. Zink also knew it was only a matter of time before the courts caught up and ruled the exchange of copyrighted digital files “illegal.”

Ever taken a moment to download a new hit at work?

Photo By David Robert

Now at UNR, info techs send out about two notices a day to students suspected, by volume of downloads, of illegal file-sharing. No UNR students have been sued by the RIAA—yet. The RIAA contacts the Nevada campus once or twice a month about potential “violators” who’ve been tracked to UNR computers. The university follows the notification process outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This shields the institution.

“It’s not surprising now that they’re going after individuals—even who they know can’t afford to pay,” Zink says. “Movies and music are our largest exports as a nation. We’re talking economic impact. It’d be sort of like giving away, when agriculture was big, crops and food to the rest of the world. We did that to some degree, but farmers were subsidized to do that. I get the feeling that artists wouldn’t mind being subsidized. But for now, in lieu of that, they want their money.”

While iTunes boasts of selling 30 million songs since it opened, popular peer-to-peer service Kazaa has 60 million users trading untold numbers of files at any given time. A couple million people download Kazaa’s software in any given week.

In that vein, Rice’s conversion to iTunes puts him in the minority of students. Few say they use legal services like iTunes and the new Napster. Dozens admit to using peer-to-peer networking to share copyrighted material. Several fiercely support what they see as a right to download free MP3s.

Though downloading music is “basically stealing,” one student says, “I know I won’t get caught.”

In reality, this student might be right, says Tom Hoops, president and CEO of Technology Associates in Sparks. The music industry’s ability to punish file-sharers appears larger and more frightening when viewed through the magnifying glass of the media.

“I look at the statistics of the thing,” he says. “Your odds of getting caught? It’d be like winning the state lottery.”

Students want to know why they, as struggling college students, should pay for something they now can receive for free. They shell out for computers and pay monthly rates for Internet service. Several have purchased Kazaa’s software.

One student last semester created an anti-advertisement for iPod: “iPay—10,000 songs in your pocket, $10,000 out of your wallet.”

Is there a way to serve both the easy online exchange of non-tangible information and the needs of artists to make a living?

Hoops says he’s heard several intriguing plans. One involves adding a fee to broadband Internet services, putting tags in songs to determine which are popular and paying artists percentages of the fee.

"[This would] reward the right people and make it practical for average musicians to make a living doing what they enjoy doing—and not to have to compete for a handful of positions offered by the music industry.”

Another music industry scare tactic revolves around the virus threat.

But Hoops doesn’t worry about contracting a computer virus through MP3 sharing.

“MP3s can’t hurt you, not like Microsoft e-mail attachments,” he says. “If you load an MP3 into an MP3 player, all it’s going to do is try to make noise out of it.”

In the end, the simplest possible explanation for why many music lovers may be taking their own sweet time converting to pay-per-song services probably doesn’t hinge on money or fear.

“People don’t like change,” Hoops says. “They don’t want to relearn the buttons and where everything is. Because the music industry has been so latent in figuring this out, people have become entrenched [with the software they already use]. It’s not that they aren’t willing to pay a buck for a song. It’s that, ‘This is what I know.’ It’s going to take some time for them to move over.”

Zink says he thinks that pay-per-song music services will eventually succeed. People will buy the intellectual property they seek to acquire.

“Particularly if they make the price reasonable," Zink says. "It’s just a matter of creating the market."