Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Techie: There ain’t no such thing as free music

Or, a couple dirty thieving pirates always ruin it for everyone else

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Earlier this month, Grokster stopped grokking.

The file-sharing service, used by millions to exchange music and video files across the Internet, was one of many that filled the gap left when Napster was declared illegal. With Grokster’s demise at the hands of the Supreme Court, the tide may be turning against free sharing of copyrighted media.

Napster was smacked down early, not only because it was one of the first big-time file-sharing programs, but because it actually stored content on its own servers. The next generation of programs, including Grokster and other choices like KaZaA and Gnutella, served more as directories — they listed songs and movies stored on other users’ machines and facilitated the exchange, but never touched the files themselves.

The wink-wink behind Grokster and its ilk was that it only provided the conduit. Any non-copyrighted file could be shared; the fact that a large percentage of the files were illegally transferred was the fault of the users, not the software or its developers. In fact, many independent bands, without the backing of major label distribution, gleefully allowed their music to be shared for free. Exposure, for them, trumped a royalty for every listen.

That argument didn’t quite hold up in court. Grokster reached a settlement with the recording industry and took itself offline. Similar services are undoubtedly more nervous now than ever.

Again taking after Napster, though, it’s retooling itself as a legal, industry-sanctioned service. Napster managed to bounce back from legal oblivion by becoming a paid provider of music, rather than a free enabler of exchange. For $10 a month, you can listen to as much music as you like. The catch? Once you stop paying, the music is gone forever — unless you’ve paid an additional fee for each song you want to keep.

Napster also survived by taking on Apple’s iTunes. It comes bundled with a number of MP3 players, and you can buy individual songs without a subscription for 99 cents each, just like iTunes.

Whither sharing, then? Of course no one would ever advocate that copyright infringement should be legal, but certainly those artists who give permission for their work to be shared freely shouldn’t be deprived of a venue just because some use it illegally. Grokster may be able to figure out some form of legal (read: paid) file-sharing, but that will likely tip the advantage once again away from independent artists to big media.

There’s room in the online music world for a directory of all music that’s legitimately free to exchange. MP3.com used to fill that space reasonably well, but once the mainstream music scene discovered it and showered it with money, it became just another corporate site.

In the old days, we had to make mix tapes to turn our friends on to new music. Retro’s cool, right?