BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here in the USA there's a continuing struggle between the recording industry and another new communications technology -- internet file-swapping services. Legal action effectively killed Napster and many of its brethren, but other less centralized music sharing services rose out of their ashes. Looking for a new solution, the Recording Industry Association of America now begins to move against the individuals who use those systems -- those inveterate music downloaders or as the RIAA might put it, freeloaders. Joining us for an update is NPR media and culture correspondent Rick Karr. Welcome back.
RICK KARR: It's a pleasure, as always, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So does this mean that if I find a great song and I download it and send it to my baby sister, they could come after me with a subpoena?
RICK KARR: Well, I mean in theory they've always been able to do that. The record labels have always taken the position that this on-line use is not legitimate -- that it is in violation of copyright laws and-- they've said in the past the reason they haven't gone after individual users is because they found it easier and more efficient to go after companies that were setting up ways to make it easy to trade music on line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I thought they couldn't come after you if you didn't make money off of it. I mean I've been making cassettes for years!
RICK KARR:That's the difference. And this is something that on-line activists are getting increasingly upset about. In the analog world, you absolutely have the right to make a cassette. The Audio Home Recording Act passed back in the late 1980s says hey, you have the right to do whatever you want with the CDs you buy -- make copies of them; give them to friends and family; give them to people --you're right -- as long as they're not making money, it's okay. But-- what the studios in the movie industry and the record companies in the record industry say is digital is different because you can make a copy of it, and it's a perfect copy, bit for bit. Doesn't get a little noisier like a cassette does every time. So they want to treat the digital world differently. There's a law on the books called The No Electronic Theft Act that basically makes it illegal to rip a lot of-- CDs into MP3 files and share them on your computer, and in fact a few people have been prosecuted under the No Electronic Theft Act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The -- I think the key expression there is "a lot" -- you have to take "a lot."
RICK KARR:These have been the people that they've gone after. For instance a student at Oklahoma State University who had thousands and thousands of MP3s on his computer that he was sharing over a Napster-like system. They've gone after sort of high-profile file-sharers like that. They haven't gone after individuals sending the one MP3 along because they realize that's -- that's a PR problem for them -- what business owner wants to sue his or her [LAUGHS] own customers?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then who is on their wanted list now?
RICK KARR:I've asked Hillary Rosen [sp?] from the Recording Industry Association point blank several times -- will you sue individual users? And she says well, we'd prefer not to have to do it but we reserve the right to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if the recording industry knows where these file-swapping sites are, why bother going after the users at all?
RICK KARR:Well if, if we go back a few months when Napster was first starting to come off line over a year ago at this point, remember that one of the innovations that had come at that point was this service called Newtella [sp?]. Now the thing about Newtella is there's no company behind it. There's no central server. There's nobody you can sue to shut the whole network down at once. It's open-source software, so as one by one the commercial file-trading services -- Napster and Music City and Kazaa [sp?] go off line, either because they've run out of money or they've been sued out of existence or they've just agreed to go off line when threatened with legal action, more and more people go on to these open-source networks where there is no center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess the new wrinkle is there are some rumblings in Congress about it that may give the recording industry a little more muscle.
RICK KARR: What the record companies want is permission, essentially, under the law, to be able to go into these systems and mess with people! --put up files that are nonsense files; put up files that are silence; put up files where you hear 30 seconds of the song and then the artist saying Hey, why don't you go out and actually buy my record? [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is file-sharing really hurting the industry? We've been through this before, but there are some that say that file-sharing actually improves sales.
RICK KARR: We're, we're going to go through this forever and ever, and ever [LAUGHTER] because every time somebody trots out a study saying it hurts sales, somebody else trots out a study saying it helps sales. I mean yeah, record sales are down by more than 10 percent over the past couple of years. Is that because of file-sharing? My take on it is probably not because the people who are the most passionate file-sharers are also the people who buy the most music -- are the people who are most passionate about music. Why are record sales down? Well, you know, a lot of my friends who are critics say there haven't been any really great releases over the past couple of years. The other thing is that like the movie industry on -- you know in the movie industry they talk about the tent-pole picture, right? The one picture that props everything up in the middle of the summer. The record industry has moved in that direction, so that the release of a Brittany Spears album is the tent pole that props up the entire catalog from the label. Well what if people don't like it? [LAUGHTER] If people don't like it, they're not going to buy it, and the tent collapses. The one argument that you could make, I think reasonably, on behalf of the theory that the peer to peer systems are eroding the base of the business that the major labels have is this: kids have heard more music on the peer to peer systems than they've heard on the radio or coming out of the listening kiosks at most major record stores. They're hearing music that the studios and the radio conglomerates haven't wanted them to hear in order to prop up the tent poles -- to keep the tent poles going. But now you have these kids who are, you know, they get on line and they're 16 years old and they suddenly realize, hey, there are actually a lot of good records made in the '80s or the '70s or the '90s or there's a lot of good stuff on independent labels that I can't hear because my home town doesn't have a community or college radio station. So-- at the same time that the major labels are suffering, I know people who run independent labels who say, hey, aside from the fact that the economy's down a little bit, we're doing very well, thank you very much, because some kid in, you know, Minot [sp?], [LAUGHTER] you know, has heard my record -- who never would have heard it before because they heard it on a peer to peer system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Karr, once again, thanks very much.
RICK KARR: You're quite welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Karr is the media and culture correspondent for NPR News. [MUSIC]