US Attorney General Pushed to Go After File Traders.

By Richard Menta 8/12/02

I was watching Heritage: Civilization and the Jews on PBS sunday morning and an interesting event of history caught my attention. It was a minor event, but it grabbed me because I noticed it curiously mirrored a more contemporary issue I was writing about. An issue that was turned up a notch Friday with the request by 19 lawmakers to Attorney General John Ashcroft to go after Internet users who download music from the Net.


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The story as told by Heritage goes as follows. Back in 53 AD St Paul decided to set up shop in Ephesus, a port town in modern day Turkey overlooking Greece. There he hoped spread the word on the new Judaism (Christianity). He was pretty successful and within two years built a significant number of converts, not only among the Jews of Ephesus, but among those who followed the Greek/Roman traditions of polytheism.

Of course, this gave concern to the hard core polytheists who were worried the all-powerful gods they gave their tributes to were not up to the task of defending themselves against this theory of a single god. So in 55 AD they collected in an amphitheater to "discuss" the issue.

One of the speakers at this event was a tradesman, whose craft was the carving of statues of the Roman gods. He figured that if the national religion were to shift, the idol carving opportunities in a monotheistic world would shrink dramatically (the poor guy could not anticipate, let alone wait, for the cadre of saints who would later adorn church walls). Needless to say, this fellow lobbied quite hard when faced with a world that no longer had need for multiple gods.

I would like to say that pure economics drove this individual when he spoke to the crowd, but there was another issue here too. Fear of change and an inability - or at least a lack of desire - to roll with the punches and search out opportunity in a changing landscape.

Nope, this guy was doing well enough as thing were and he wanted to retain the status quo. He wanted to limit the choices available to the populace, in this case choice of religion, because it had the potential to cost him a buck. More important for this article, he demanded that the local government do it for him.

That little craftsman did a reasonably effective job. His fiery rhetoric inspired the amphitheater crowd into a raging mob, forcing the government to quickly put down the unrest that ensued. In order to prevent the issue from growing further, the local officials took additional action and sent St. Paul packing.

In a nutshell, an entrenched business concern forced politicians to regulate personal choice for financial gain. What the music and record lobbyists are doing in Washington today are no different from what that tradesman did back in Ephesus, except that these contemporary lobbyists are more organized, educated, and well-funded.

The Interest of the People v. The Voice of Special Interest

The point here is not to compare file trading as some divine form of religious freedom, just to show that industry has been manipulating government for eons. The daily motions of Hilary Rosen and her clique at the RIAA are just business as usual on the beltway

I firmly believe in a strong government hand in gun control, the pharmaceutical industry, and any other industry where irresponsible use can injure the public. Toys are hardly considered a threat to life and limb, but we have laws there too to make sure manufacturers don't make products with loose parts that can enter and block our kids windpipes. Try as I might, though, file trading doesn't fall into this category for me. Certainly not enough to let loose the full powers of the office of the US Attorney General to track down and jail consumers who dare download Eminem's latest single. I also may point out that the other laws regulate the industries, not the consumer.

The war on drugs is the closest I can think of to the war on file trading the music industry is trying to start. Digital music files are a lot easier to sneak over the border than dope and have far less social stigma. They also don't threaten your health like drugs do. Why Ashcroft would want to get involved in this one is beyond me, but politics be they may that is exactly what might happen.

The record industry has valid arguments, but instead of coming up with honest market solutions to the issues that threaten their old business model (a model based on oligopoly), they choose instead to run to the courts and legislatures. Their goal is to force our government not to protect against a public threat, but to compensate for several years of bad business decisions.

That is what offends me most about this petition by 19 lawmakers to push John Ashcroft to attack file traders - i.e. the American consumer - with the same zest he would use to attack members of Al Qaida. They want him to use strong arm tactics to cover for an industry that fumbled the ball.

Kodak

Kodak was faced with a similar prospect when digital photography started to take hold. Kodak is part of a film oligopoly that charges you several bucks for a 24" roll of celluloid, plus a few buck to develop it to boot.

Digital photography threatened to tun that model upside down. Even though digital photographs are inferior to film stock as MP3s are inferior to CDs, what digital photos and MP3s lose in quality, they gain back in convenience and flexibility.

Rather than run to their congressman, Kodak embraced the new technology and became a leader in the development of not only digital cameras, but of equipment that takes advantage of the flexibility digital offers. They saw opportunity in the new market place and rather than whine about how it could destroy the old business model, they simply adjusted that model to incorporate both. The end result is they are now a leader in digital imaging making money on both the old and new technology. (Kodak recently shocked the digital camera world with the introduction of a 13.8 mega-pixel camera at a trade show. No one was more surprised then Cannon who announced earlier at the same show that they broke the resolution barrier with what they thought would be an industry leading 11.1 megapixel offering).

In 1998, the record industry could have been a force to decide if digital downloads were to be a pay medium like CDs and cassettes or free like radio and MTV. All they had to do was to embrace the new technology like Kodak did. They even had several companies in the likes of MP3.com, Emusic.com, Listen.com and others who already were thinking about how to do this and were clammoring to partner with them and be their online music stores.

But the record industry would have none of it, clinging to their existing business model and preventing the convergence of digital music under their control. They even had a secure format in Liquid Audio that could have supplanted the MP3 format in those days, because it was difficult to find anything in the MP3 format then beyond the latest Britney hit.

The opportunity quickly passed the record industry by in the form of Napster, which brought together music beyond what was offered by the big 5 labels. In the end it was Napster and the eventual grass roots participation of 70 million consumers who made the decision if digital music would be a free or paid medium. Free won.

The record labels are still fighting and still whining. The problem is that things are getting vicious and there may be a wave of needless carnage before it is over. I say needless because it may not change a thing.

The ultimate victims will be consumers who are targeted to be the "examples". Individuals who will be unwillingly forced to deal with the cost and frustrations of legal action against foes who have far more money and influence than they do. The record industry's intention is to put the fear of god in file traders so they stop. It won't work.

First because this is not a new tactic for the record industry. Two years I wrote about the first wave of legal attacks against users in Oklahoma Student to be Sacrificial Lamb in MP3 Wars. This trial did not stem the rise in file trading, it rose as the record industry's message was ignored.

Second, history shows such tactics didn't work in the past either.

According to Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, the Christian society Paul created in Ephesus continued to thrive and grow after his expulsion.

Before John Ashcroft decides to look for file traders to throw to the lions, he should be aware that the Roman action to destroy Christianity using the same method also backfired, eliciting sympathy for the cause of their victims. Instead of ridding the land of Christianity, it helped spread the word just like the Napster trial spread the word on file trading.

I will tell you where the stalking and trapping of song swapers will find success. It will succeed in making the consumer angry. Do you know what consumers do when they get angry? They shop somewhere else.

 


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Research: File Traders Buy Records?
Beta Testers Wanted for Two New Nike/Phillips MP3 Players
Apple Introduces iPod for Windows
Review: Dioneer Dion DCP-100
Record Industry Wants Royalties for Used CDs

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