"Anyone can become angry -- that is easy. But to be angry with the right
person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and
in the right way -- that is not easy."
- Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics
To the growing list of portable audio players -- the boombox, the Walkman, the
Discman -- add the Rio, a $199 hand-held device that, unlike these others,
records and plays back music downloaded from the Internet.
You plug it into your computer, head for one of a growing number of Web sites
that offer digitized music selections, hit some buttons and then you -- and
your Rio -- are in possession of a near-CD quality version of, say, a live
track by the Beastie Boys.
But the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the
interests of record labels, is afraid the Rio will increase music piracy. It
would prefer that the Rio not become a popular holiday stocking-stuffer. It
would rather the Rio ceased to exist.
Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles refused a request by the
Washington-based RIAA to halt production of the Rio. The group says it will
appeal the ruling, which it considers a stumbling block in its crusade to
eliminate illegal music traffic. But the ruling is a boon to independent labels
and artists, and to music fans eager for new, high-quality recordings
unavailable at retail stores or on major labels.
"If you're Madonna or the Spice Girls, then the music industry serves you very
well and you make a lot of money the way things work now," says Michael
Robertson, the president of MP3.com, an online music distributor. "It's the
other 95 percent of artists who embrace the Internet."
Ever since the first surreptitiously recorded bootleg concert tape, piracy has
plagued the music industry. But the Rio's proponents argue that attacking the
device is a misguided strategy. "They should go after the pirates, and not
penalize the consumers," says Ken Wirt, vice president of corporate marketing
for Diamond Multimedia Systems, the San Jose company that created the Rio.
"Preventing use of the Rio is like saying the portable CD player is illegal
because it can play bootleg CDs."
Whenever a new technology is created, so is the potential for its abuse. The
Internet has empowered artists with democratic methods of distribution, but at
the same time it's robbed them of control over their material. The debate about
the ownership of digital information, of course, encompasses more than just the
"We are facing this now," says Hilary Rosen, president of RIAA, "but the rest
of the intellectual property world will face it soon."
They already are. The Washington Post, for instance, is involved in a lawsuit
against a Web site that reprinted entire Post articles. And the software
industry has fought its own piracy battles for years.
The RIAA is concerned about the Rio, which records and plays up to an hour of
music, because anyone with the proper tools can use, and abuse, MP3, the format
on which the Rio is based. Using certain software, an individual can take, say,
Madonna's copyrighted "Ray of Light" album, convert the audio tracks to MP3 and
upload the file to the World Wide Web, where anyone with the right software can
download the illegal material (and play it on a Rio).
"Diamond essentially created a machine that doesn't distinguish between the
pirate songs and the legitimate songs," Rosen says. "Therefore in our view it
exacerbates the marketplace for pirate recordings."
But Judge Audrey B. Collins of Los Angeles ruled that the Rio is not required
to contain a piracy-prevention technology known as Serial Copy Management
System. Rio has no digital output capability -- it can record and play music,
but it can't copy music to another Rio, or even upload the files back to a
computer. "Incorporating SCMS into the Rio appears an exercise in futility,"
The RIAA's online enforcement team has already taken hundreds of thousands of
illegal songs offline, according to Rosen. But not all MP3 traffic on the
Internet is illegal, and Rosen is quick to emphasize that the RIAA is not
trying to clamp down on free expression on the Internet. "The only thing we're
against is unauthorized MP3 files; thousands of independent artists and
musicians are using MP3 files to trade their songs online, and that's great."
On Friday, Diamond Multimedia, MP3.com and three other companies announced the
formation of the MP3 Association, an industry trade group focused on the
continued evolution and adoption of the MP3 standard. The group will promote
MP3 technology and educate consumers about its legal use.
Many Web surfers already know about MP3; in less than a year, they've legally
downloaded 4 million songs for free from MP3.com, Robertson estimates. Most of
the artists represented on MP3.com are not mainstream stars (heard of Uglyhead?
chuckie dogg fresh?), although the Beastie Boys and Dave Stewart of the
Eurythmics both distribute songs there.
The ad-driven site, which does not charge or pay artists, serves the artists
much like radio airplay, providing exposure and awareness and enticing
consumers to buy an album.
Another partner in the MP3 Association, GoodNoise.com, is an Internet record
company selling music by lesser-known artists for 99 cents a song or $8.95 an
album. It also licenses the exclusive rights to digitally distribute music by
artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra.
"There's a tremendous demand for music in MP3 format, with over 10 million
people around the world downloading music from the Internet," says Bob Kohn,
chairman of GoodNoise and the co-author of "Kohn on Music Licensing." Kohn
believes the Rio lawsuit was not about piracy but about "the control of music
by the six major record labels acting through the RIAA."
Currently, popular audio players like WinAmp and FreeAmp allow listeners to
hear digital music emanating from their computers, but the Rio will provide
portability, like a Walkman. A Korean company created a similar product named
MPMan, but the device is expensive and difficult to obtain in the United
Ultimately, Rosen would like to see a global copyright management system -- a
technology that would, among other functions, bury copyright information in
recorded music and dictate how a song is duplicated, how many times, at what
price, and for how long. A piece of music would contain a digital "license
plate" that could detail its journey along the information superhighway -- and
tell whether its listener is in possession of stolen goods.
"Basically the entire world is waiting for music to be legitimately available
online," says Rosen. "But there's simply no way that a legitimate music market
online can compete with the pirate marketplace."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company