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° Rubrique About The World

ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

  Rebels on the Net

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What makes popular music popular is not only the nature and content of the songs or the identity of its performers; it is also its availibility. Popular music is as much shaped and defined by advertising, marketing, distibution and retailing as by lyrics and chords sequences. The sheer amount of literature on the subject is a sobering reminder of how much of a truism this has become.1 However, it is also a field in which fast, permanent evolution necessitates constant monitoring.

The development of the Internet was bound to have a momentous impact on popular culture, particularly on the accessibility of the words, sounds and images that define it. Throughout the nineties, a series of technical innovations gradually made the distribution of music via the Internet more than a dream, and several commercial ventures were launched, probing the possibilities of making music accessible on-line.2 But none had generated such a fierce and heated debate as the new generation of digital music-promoting companies led by the much maligned and the much celebrated Napster, and a number of others that came in its wake, Gnutella, Scour, CuteMX, Freenet or iMESH, to name but a few.

In the course of the last few months, the music business has indeed been challenged and questioned by companies like Napster that offer a revolutionary means to access music. They owe their existence to a computer format called MP3, shorthand for "MPEG Audio Layer-3", a handy compression technology, with no embedded encryption or copyright protection, created by a coalition of international audio experts and perfected in Germany in 1987. 

MP3 compresses large sound files down into a size easy to download and swap over the Internet. What Napster does is to provide Internet users with a program that enables them to share songs and swap music files they already have on their computers in MP3 format with other Napster users, a free, easy and almost instantaneous process. The problem is that the stockpiles thus connected are mostly of unauthorized MP3 files. For if Napster cannot remove copyrighted material from the user-created pool and does not technically "host" any copyrighted material on its site, most of the music downloaded and shared is, since it is either music Napster users have bought directly in digital form (from record companies sites or on-line retail outlets), or their own CDs that they have compressed into MP3 files (a simple process that only requires a "data ripper", a free program that can be found anywhere on the Net which enables the copy of CD audio files directly onto a computer's hard drive, the files being subsequently compressed to a few magabytes by the MP3 encoder).

As a result, Napster is being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, the music-industry lobbying group. Its president, Hilary Rosen, and the major recording companies she represents, contend that Napster is unlawfully distributing copyrighted music, thus stealing RIAA property and hurting profits; more exactly, Napster is accused of tributary copyright infrigement, which means contributing to and facilitating other people's infrigement. To assess what is at stake, it may be useful to know that there were 3 billion songs downloaded in January 2001 alone, making it the most popular website ever. "We estimate that a worst-case scenario would be 16 percent of all U.S. music sales in 2002 being lost to Web piracy, representing a $985 million loss in U.S music profitability," reads a confidential analysis, issued in August 2000 by the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Investment Research Group. A preliminary injunction shutting Napster down has been stayed by a San Francisco federal court pending appeal, while is going on appeal following a September ruling by a Federal District Court in Manhattan that the company had willfully infringed the copyrights of Universal Music Group (settlements have been reached with the other majors). 

Napster and consorts are thus technically engaged into piracy, the "unauthorized use of another's production, invention or conception" (Webster). Popular wisdom (and more surreptitiously, heads of states) have traditionally held pirates in high esteem; they vindicate lower class' resentment of the rich and powerful and provide the excitement of vicariously infriging on the law. Is it enough to turn Napster inceptors into subversive activists? Is this new method of acquiring music an act of resistance, of defiance or does it merely contribute to the entertainment of the masses in a capitalist economy? 
These are some of the issues I would now like to explore.

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° Rubrique About The World