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Steal This Song: "Napsterization" of Video?

Adapt to New Technology or Die! By Charlie White
Let's take a dip into the Dark Side of copyright law -- the one where record companies have a double ripoff going on.

As digital video editing becomes more prevalent in our society, it becomes more newsworthy. For instance, the other day there was a report of guerilla digi-vid cutters taking liberties with George Lucas's Star Wars Episode I, where the rogue editors re-dubbed most of the inane things uttered by that annoying character, Jar-Jar Binks. Nice work, troops!

But wait. As an editor, how would you feel if someone got their hands on one of your prime projects, one that you spent the better part of a year editing, and turned it into something completely different? Then, say they took that new and "improved" edition and sold it on the street, making profits on your work and pre-empting legitimate sales of it -- effectively taking food from your mouth. This, friends, is the reason for copyright laws. Lock 'em up and throw away the key, says I.

That said, let's take a dip into the Dark Side of copyright law -- where record companies have a double ripoff going on. First, they make a "deal" with some talented, but unfortunately business-challenged musician. For every CD the company sells of this artist's work, the artist himself gets about a nickel, if he's lucky. Then, on the other side of this grim equation, consumers are charged (gouged) $17 for a CD that has only one or two good songs on it.

Sounds like a pretty good racket to me. Get your content for next to nothing, promote it every which way, and then sell it for its weight in gold. Granted, the record companies do have to spend some money to make money, but what the record companies should be bringing to the table here is good musical judgment and selectivity. From what I can see (and hear), not much selectivity is actually going on. As they have for decades, the tin-eared record companies dictate what everyone will hear by seemingly throwing darts at a list of hapless musicians tacked to a dart board. Then trend-aware buyers snap up whatever they're told to buy by the constant promotion and propaganda machine.

The problem with all this is that the sales of recorded materials is based on an old-fashioned reality that doesn't hold true any more: It used to be extremely difficult to get that music from the artist to you. Still clinging to that premise, the weasels at record companies stall or quash any attempt to lubricate that channel where music flows from artist to listener. Look back about a decade, and you'll see a perfect example of this -- the ill-fated DAT (digital audio tape) as a consumer-based distribution format. Even though the new format represented a vast improvement over the ubiquitous audio cassettes, record companies were totally opposed to any format that could make perfect copies of their products, and so these powerful corporations effectively eliminated the format through both neglect and subterfuge. That's a laugh. Imagine a company quashing a method of distributing its products because it's too easy to use and its quality is too high.

Now jump ahead ten years, to the present, and we see a distribution method that makes using DAT tapes look as difficult as working in a coal mine. That's right, it's the MP3 format, and record companies are bending over backward to keep us from using it. It's too easy, too convenient, and the record companies are running scared. At first, the labels hid their collective heads in the sand, hoping the digital music revolution would simply go away. Now they're doing all they can to add as much friction to the process. As you may agree, this isn't going to work. There's no stopping technological progress. And speaking of progress, now there's a new MP3 format, called MP3Pro, that can bring you the same music quality at half the file size. But the record companies don't like it. Why? Well, there's no provision for copy protection in there, so they won't be able to control how you use the music. Note to record companies: You don't get to decide how people listen to music any more. Listeners do.

I keep thinking that if this music were priced reasonably, there would be no need to steal it. I think the way to ensure that it's reasonably priced is to remove from this transaction all the bloodsuckers who aren't musicians and who are leeches on the creativity and skill of those who are. Advances in digital audio production have already set many musicians free to explore their own muse without record company jackals breathing down their necks. Beyond that, the vast delivery system that is the Internet has the distribution chops to leapfrog the record companies and all their hangers-on.

Don't get me wrong -- I was a professional musician for 16 years, and don't think musicians should work for free, ever. I also know that slavery was outlawed a long time ago, and it's time for the best musicians to emancipate themselves from these blood-sucking greedmeisters at the record labels. Let's lubricate the channel between musicians and their audiences. Why not just steal music from the record companies (easy enough to do), then send a buck for every song you grab directly to whoever performed it? It would be like shareware, only with music instead of computer software.

And finally, as a digital video editor, learn from this. Remember to price your products reasonably, because if you're price-gouging your customers, and your products are easily stolen, in this juked-up distribution environment, video files are next in line for "napsterization." Learn that if a new technological innovation comes along, don't just sit there and be comfortable with what you're using now. Don't think that it will just go away. Embrace it. Keep yourself current. There's no stopping the tide of technology. Go with the flow (of technology), and the flow (of cash) will come back to you.

Charlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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