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Opinion: How record companies could embrace Napster and maintain profits
(IDG) -- The open source movement has inspired countless debates about copyright issues, even in areas having nothing to do with source code. One such issue came to mind recently when I discovered a utility called Napster.
Napster searches for Internet databases of recorded music, connects to the one that it determines to be the best, and lets you to browse the collected files. If you find any songs you like, you can download them and play them any time.
The condensed nature of the MP3 formats makes it possible to download songs reasonably quickly. For example, I recently grabbed a song that was over 64 MB in its raw form on the source CD, but was only 5.8 MB as an MP3 file. Although I can hear the difference in quality if I listen carefully, the MP3 version really does sound acceptably close to the original.
Given the restricted bandwidth with which most folks connect to the Internet, a few megabytes per song is still far from ideal. But it's tolerable over a cable modem, and you can always queue up several songs and let them download overnight.
In theory, Napster should be an excellent way to provide music on demand over the Internet. It's a whole different thing in practice. Most of the music you'll find on the Internet through Napster is pirated.
The copyright issue at hand is simple: money. When people try to protect a copyright, what they are usually saying is, "I don't want anyone to make money off of my ideas and work unless I give them permission to do so. And if anyone does get my permission, I want a cut."
Napster makes it easy to violate this copyright because it is a simple matter to grab a song off of any commercial CD, convert it into the MPEG or MP3 format that Napster uses, and then publish it to the Napster databases without the permission of the recording company.
I certainly understand the perspective of the recording company or music publisher. But I have to tell you that I've never been that clear on how the whole copyright mess works.
If I go to the local Blockbuster and rent a movie, I'm not allowed to make a tape copy so I can view it later. But as far as I know, it's perfectly legal for me to tape the same movie off of HBO -- and that way, I can usually get a higher quality copy and view my tape as many times as I like. Does that make sense to you?
What I'm saying is nothing new, but I agree with those who say that we have to go back and reevaluate how copyrights work and how we make information available. I'm not of the opinion that copyrights and patents are bad. But the whole system seems to be going awry with the growth of the Internet, and there are antagonists on both sides.
There are those pirates who ignore copyright issues and harm the producers of information and entertainment. But it is equally obvious that some companies are going beyond the bounds of reason in the ways that they try to protect their intellectual property. The recent DVD copy protection controversy is a good example.
And now the music business wants to do the same thing with MP3 and music -- embed copy protection in the media. It would be shame if that's how things turn out, because it imposes many inconveniences upon customers and, although such a move would inhibit piracy somewhat, these sorts of protections rarely put a stop to it altogether.
Anyway, I don't think the music business has too much to worry about just yet. Your tastes are probably quite different from mine, but I couldn't find any songs I really wanted, even if I were willing to break the law.
I did try to get some of the songs that were available, anyway. And I'm glad I did, because it taught me just how bad Napster really is.
The supposed strength of Napster is its ability to find what you want quickly. But the search process is terribly unpredictable. Because Napster connects to different databases at different times, you get unpredictable search results. Sometimes you get one hit, sometimes several hits, and sometimes none -- all using the same search criteria.
When you do find something you want to download, chances are that Napster will choke on the file. After countless attempts at downloading various songs by a wide range of artists, I was only able to get five complete files. Worst of all, in one case the download time was excruciatingly slow.
Your mileage will vary, of course, but it will vary primarily because, with Napster, you don't download MP3s from a central repository; you download them from individual users' hard drives. That means that if the MP3 you want is sitting on the hard drive of a user with a 56 Kbps connection to the Internet, that's the best possible speed at which your download will proceed.
All in all, it is still far more convenient to purchase a CD than to try to use Napster to get the same music.
Nevertheless, the music business understandably hates Napster because it encourages piracy. The industry's knee-jerk reaction is to crack down on piracy by making it more difficult to copy and distribute recorded music in order to crack down on the piracy. But I wonder if the music industry ought to see a new opportunity when it looks at Napster, instead.
Sooner or later, people are going to get music on demand over the Internet. Rather than fight it, the music industry should embrace that approach quickly and find new ways to make money doing it.
For example, a smart record company could make good money by doing Napster right. Record companies could make their entire database of music available, thus solving the recurring problem of getting blank search results in Napster. Then they could index the information intelligently in order to make it easy to find music.
They could broaden the potential audience by making the search process possible using a Web browser as well as a dedicated program like Napster. Last but certainly not least, they could put the music on a server farm tuned for high-availability.
The next step would be to partner with electronics vendors to build Internet music access into home entertainment equipment, complete with a stripped-down Web browser for searching the music databases. With Internet bandwidth as limited as it is, these devices would probably have to download music in the background while you listen to music you already have on hand. Your receiver would need to have a reasonably large hard drive in it for local storage. You should also be able to plug in your portable MP3 player to download a subset of your music library for enjoyment on the go that day.
Recording companies could charge customers a modest subscription fee for access to the music service. The rate structure could follow usage patterns: the more you use the service, the higher the subscription fee, up to a flat rate for premium service that gets you unlimited downloads.
The record companies could also create a free channel for new music. They could charge new artists for studio time and then publish their music on the free channel. If the artists catch on, the company can contract with the musicians to provide material for the subscription channel.
This approach, or one like it, wouldn't put an end to music piracy, but it doesn't make pirating any easier than it already is. Instead, it offers an affordable, high-quality alternative to getting your music on the sly.
If recording companies improve upon the approach above quickly and make access easy, fast, and reliable, they could make it worth the price of a subscription to avoid the Napster hassles.
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