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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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Peer-to-peer technology could have momentous, truly revolutionary consequences on the culture and information industry. Some go as far as calling it "online socialism". Ian Clarke, the originator of Freenet and a staunch proponent of P2P, predicts that in the process, media empires may be overturned. However, for John Borland of CNET News, like many socialist cultures, reality (the necessity of business backing) threatens to undermine idealism. Because sites like Napster do not contain any files (they remain on the users' hard drives, the digital information travels via the Internet but the files are not actually stored on a central server) and because they search for data on countless hard drives simultaneously, P2P networks are fast and efficient. Besides, P2P is not limited to music files; anything that can be stored in a computer file, from films and photos to books or magazines, can be traded and pirated over the Internet.

As Cohen puts it, "there's no corner of the so-called content industry, no bit of intellectual property, no idea, that isn't in danger of being Napsterized". The development of P2P will create a demand for greater bandwidth and faster, more powerful PCs which will affect the balance of power between computer makers, Internet service providers, and the cable companies that carry traffic across the Internet and are currently trying to persuade consumers to subscribe to services like DSL and cable modems. The intruding and all-pervasive nature of P2P technology (anyone will be able to dip into the hard drives of other connected web users) will also lead us to rethink our attitude toward digital privacy and piracy.

An unexpected, strong voice has been heard in defense of Napster, that of Courtney Love, a major music and movie star, in a speech to the Digital Hollywood Online Entertainment Conference, given in New York on May 16, 2000. What is particulary striking in her speech is that she does not so much set out to defend Napster (she even specifies that "It's piracy when those guys that run those companies make side deals with the cartel lawyers and label heads so that they can be 'the labels' friend', and not the artists'") as she attacks the recording industry. For Love, the real pirates are the majors. She first bases her argumentation on a rather conventional definition of piracy ("Piracy is the act of stealing an artist's work without any intention of paying for it"), then proceeds to demonstrate that it is precisely what record companies do. To make her point she uses the hypothetic example of an unusually successful first album selling one million copies and with an unusually high 20% royalty rate; this would nevertheless leave the band members, after costs for radio promotion, recording time, tour support, video production costs etc. have been recouped by the record company, with $0.00 to share.

In the meantime, the company would gross $11 million, a neat $6.6 million profit after expenses. To make matters worse, artists do not even own the copyrights of their music for 35 years. A recent telling example is that of Erykah Badu whose debut album sold three million copies and who declared, at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's show, held during the September 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, "I thought it was going to be a lot more money". Love's attack dramatically shifts the debate from the copyright issue to the role actually played by the majors. From plaintiff they become defendants, from righteous, they appear as villains, which ultimately defuses all the moral arguments put forward to justify their attack on piracy. Other artists also consider Napster as a subversive tool. 
Chuck D explains how it is going to blow apart the music industry and stresses the similarity between Napster and rap, a movement still rich with artists on the outer perimeters of mainstream marketing in the music business.

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° Rubrique About The World