Pirates of the Internet Age

Writer: 
August 1, 2008

Douglas Sonders Photography

It's hard to imagine the scene in Braveheart in which William Wallace, covered with blue war paint, rallies his hard-worn troops having the same impact without the chilling poignancy of the bagpipes in James Horner's epic musical score. Or the final scene of Grey's Anatomy's second season, with Denny's unexpected death and Meredith's moment of truth, touching the same emotional chords without the melodic accompaniment of Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars." And these days, it's equally hard to imagine a world where you can't rock out on Guitar Hero.

Music is the common thread that inspires us, creates long-lasting memories, and complements our daily routines. Hearing—and truly experiencing—music conjures up emotions deep inside us. We value that connection and continue to seek it out by exploring new music.

The music industry is in a period of historic transition and experimentation. Just twenty years ago, music fans could listen to music in only two ways: turning on the radio or buying an album. You paid close attention to those musical experiences, sitting in front of your stereo as the album played and reading liner notes. Today, the options for musical consumption are countless. Music is a portable, digital background soundtrack for your everyday activities—while playing a video game, working, or exercising.

The demand for ubiquitous music is greater now than ever before. A multitude of delivery platforms increase the ways we can get our favorite music—from video and download services, social-networking sites, and subscription services to legal peer-to-peer sites, Internet radio, satellite radio, and cable-music channels.

The Internet and other new digital platforms also offer artists an unprecedented number of ways to introduce their music to the right audience. Some artists experiment with do-it-yourself models, an approach that is easier for established bands with iconic status and a loyal fan base. Others work with record labels, which invest millions of dollars to nurture and promote new artists and bring much needed creative and marketing expertise to help the artist succeed.

Of course, as much as we'd like to focus solely on the positive developments in the marketplace, we cannot avoid the elephant in the room that inhibits the growth of that marketplace: the extensive theft of music, especially online. This occurs primarily via so-called "file sharing" networks, which allow millions of strangers to illegally download from each other free digital copies of their favorite recordings. While perhaps on its face a little like the practice of sharing tapes from long ago, online theft is qualitatively and quantitatively different because one person can be the worldwide publisher of perfect digital copies on a viral network. The Internet, for all the wonderful advances it has brought our society, has regrettably sanitized the act of theft and made stealing music feel easy, anonymous, and risk-free.

The sad news for the music industry is that the massive volume of piracy both online and offline has had real consequences. Precipitous declines in sales have led to less investment in the creation of new music. Fewer new bands are signed and many have been dropped from label rosters. What's more, piracy harms the thousands of regular, working-class individuals who rely on a healthy music business to sustain their livelihoods: from artists and songwriters pursuing careers in music to the father of three logging a long shift in a CD manufacturing plant and the bright, young technologist working to build the newest innovative (and legal) platform for enjoying music.

This theft is especially acute on college campuses, and unfortunately Duke is no exception: The student-affairs website reports that "Duke receives 'cease and desist' infringement notices almost daily from representatives of the music and motion-picture industries and other copyright owners." Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Duke is legally required to forward those letters with the instructions that the individual remove any copyright-infringing material he or she is accused of having.

Surveys indicate that more than half of college students frequently download music and movies illegally via school networks. This means that campus networks—often taxpayer funded and specifically reserved for educational use—are continuously used for the illegal exchange of copyrighted works, gobbling up valuable bandwidth and costing colleges money. For example, the University of Florida reports that peer-to-peer use constituted 90 percent of its Internet traffic. After deploying technological tools, the university experienced an immediate and overwhelming drop in illegal use and has since estimated administrative and network equipment savings of more than $1 million.

Many other universities have demonstrated that they can play a meaningful role in helping address what is a mutual problem. Allowing illegal file sharing is antithetical to any educational institution's objective to instill a sense of right and wrong. Universities are in the education business, preparing young adults to succeed in the world. No administration would teach its students that stealing is acceptable, yet that is the result of failing to act or turning a blind eye.

At the Recording Industry Association of America, we're realistic. We appreciate that no strategy will eliminate piracy. Our efforts to combat piracy are simply a means to an end. And that end for us is an exciting marketplace that serves both fans and the music community.

Are we trying to put the genie back in the bottle? No. We're not focused on the past, but instead driven toward a future where music plays an even more integral role in our society. Because no matter how you slice it, life would be less fun without music.

Marks '89, J.D. '92 is executive vice president and general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America.