Changing Tunes on the Web

The ability of millions of music lovers to obtain songs free on the Web, versus paying $10 or more for a CD at their local retailer, continues to rankle the recording industry. But it's a phenomenon the industry may inevitably have to join, rather than fight.

Yes, the prototype of online swapping services, Napster – which popularized the free music option – was vanquished by an industry legal offensive. And the drive to protect copyrighted works of art from online "piracy" has strong legal and moral underpinnings. But that drive has to somehow merge, not collide, with the Internet's unstoppable ease of distributing music, words, and images.

The industry's lawsuit tactics are increasingly problematic. Consider KaZaA, one of the services now in the recording companies' legal sights. Unlike Napster, it keeps no central index of its user files. Thus it's harder to prove the service has any control over the song-swapping of individual users. Instead, KaZaA's software allows patrons to directly access and download music files available on each other's computers.

Beyond that, the service is incorporated in the Pacific island of Vanuatu, run from an office in Australia, and the creators of its software have no known address. The service claims its business is global, and that US courts have no jurisdiction over it.

KaZaA, moreover, is only one of a number of popular swapping services. Given the technological trends, the industry would be smart to work harder at adapting to the Web instead of spending millions to resist it. Online music services that charge a fee are one option. Some of them are starting to show an increase in patrons.

One thing seems certain: the next generation of music lovers will demand access to vast numbers of songs cheaply and quickly. New ways of generating revenue online – perhaps by tapping the music service's potential as advertising carriers – will have to be found. A substantial part of any such income must go to the artists who, after all, remain the fountainhead of the whole enterprise.

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