Sunday, June 25, 2006

Arrrr, we be music pirates.

What does everyone think about music piracy? The first question to ask is whether you think it is right or wrong to pirate music to begin with. I think a better question would be WHY people pirate music. I want to explore this question along with, current solutions, and possible future solutions.

Lets go back in time a bit to the advent of music. Music has been around for a heck of a lot longer than I have been around. It is so old that there is some evidence that it even predates spoken word. That makes it pretty damn old. Every culture in the history of the world has had some form of music and it has gone to reflect their culture. Bards used it to tell stories and slaves used it to communicate. It seems so basic that you see it in nature all of the time. Birds sing to each other all of the time so do many other animals including whales, dolphins, and monkeys. So we have pretty much establishd that music has been around for a while and has been pretty important so lets move forward to the history of the content medium.

The bad thing about music before the advent of the recording device is that to listen to it you would have to go to your local concert or if you were well off have your court minstrels play a nice little diddy for ya. Unfortunately the majority of the populace at any given time did not have either of those luxuries they were worried more about food or shelter. It was not until Mr. Thomas Alfa Edison would come along and create the first recorded human voice in 1877. This would go on to be one of the biggest inventions to rock the music world.

With the creation of the first musical recording came the first time people could enjoy a previous recorded concert. First there were wax cylinders, then phonograph records, then came electrically created records. It was not unitl 1933 with Wurlitzer's Jukebox did music come to the masses. In the late 40s early 50s the vinyl record as we came to know it was becoming a popular medium to playback you swiging hits. Next came reel to reel, 8-tracks, and finally casette tapes. The next invention would be the next revolution the CD. This would finally end the analog music error this would also be the beginning a war that is brewing to this day.

With all the older formats there was a small risk of musical replication because as copies were created each successive copy was worse than the previous version becuase of the physical way the sound was copied. With the CD you can have a bit for bit copy there is no degredation in signal you can make a million exact copies off of the orginal and never theortically have a bad copy. This was not a large deal due to the fact that many people did not have the equipment to actually create these copies. It was not until the CD-ROM for the computer started becoming popular. Once these became a standard component of modern computers everybody who owned a computer had the ability to create these illegal music copies. At this time though the record industry still was not bothered by this becuase although illegal and easy to do there was still no easy way to trade a lot of music. Burners were still pretty slow and dial up was just coming into the picture and it would take quite a while to download one song. Also the music format to save the music in was is called a WAV file which was an exact lossless duplication of the song from the CD which could be around 30MB for a 3 minutes song. This would take an eternity to download online

Then came what was to be the ever painfully thorn in the music industries butt, the advent of the MP3 (Motion Picture Experts Group layer 3). Now for those who have been playing Rip Van Winkel for the last 15 years this is the preferred codec (COmpressorDECompressor) for saving a song from a digital medium to a computer. What this little codec allowed was a song to be copied from a CD to a computer and instead of being 30 MB for a song it could cut it down to about 3MB and have roughly similar quality. This is about the same time broadband computer connections were starting to become more popular with DSL and Cable connections leading the way. This looks like it might be starting to rile some feathers, but not until the advent of a certain program did everyone take notice that program was Napster.

This was the start of the online music revolution. With increased speeds of the broadband connection, the compressed file sizes, and PCs with CD-ROMs the only issue was sharing your collection. Before Napster you might be able to burn a CD for a friend or download music from IRC channels, but both of these required a user to request the file or some technical know how. Their was a couple of things that made Napster so popular. First was a pretty simple interface and usability. All you had to do was search for your song similar to doing a search on Google and you would get a list of songs to download. Another unique technology was the use of P2P (Peer-to-Peer). This allowed a person to download a song directly from another users computer. You did not have to know the person or anything about them that was handled by the software program. This was the final straw for the recording industry and some artists. Metallica lead the assault and by September 2002 Napster was shutdown. The biggest hole in their business model was that the files were hosted on their servers this is known as a Centralized P2P client. Becuase it was proven that they were facilitation of piracy and they had the copyrighted works on their server they were held liable. This was just beginning of both the revolution and war.

The next big technology that came about was Decentralized P2P the difference is more symantic than anything, but a difference nonetheless. Instead of directly hosting the files on their servers for the clients to download all traffic is from one peer to another peer. The software just allows a gateway from one to the other. This lead to the creation of companies such as Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire to name a view. Grokster is most famous for losing a Supreme Court case on the subject of copyright infringement. The case did not say that companies and technolgies behind music downloads are illegal, but how the company portrays itself. In this instance Grokster opening admitted on their website to be trading in illegal software, music, and movie downloads. This lead to their shutdown in 2004. Oh but this is not the end of the story quite yet.

What this lead to was the symantic changes in advertising and business models. The P2P companies could not openly say they were offering illegal downloads and would say they were against it. This would abide by the rules of the Supreme Court ruling, but this ruling also meant that these companies could be sued. So what happens when you take away the servers altogether yet still give the ability to download music from peers. You are left with one of the largest saps of bandwidth, bittorrent.

Created by Bram Cohen, this software allows for the sharing of file much like the other P2P clients, but does not require a central repository of the files. This allows downloaders(leechers) to download fragments of file from multiple uploaders(seeders) and once you have a fragment you seed that with everyone else sharing until everyone has a full copy. At this point in time there have been reports that 35-70% of all bandwidth is being consumed by this file sharing. After that lengthy discourse of the technology behind the file sharing craze lets look at the reasoning why people don't want to pay for the music from the store.

There are many theories on this, but the first was that many people for a long time did not think it was wrong. The complete, supposed, anonymity of the technology allowed for anyone to just open up the software download a song and listen to it. There were no warning no messages every time you played the song to say it was wrong. Second is that it was easy. Again you can just open up the software and download it and not have to go to the store and worry about driving to the store, paying for the song, and then going home. It was all there at your fingertips. Third is that it is free. Who would buy the song when you can easily get a copy for free. Going along with the concept of being for free was the idea of why someone would have to buy a complete album costing $10-$20 when all they wanted was one song. This I believe was an issue of the Record industries greed and not giving the consumer choice and the consumer backlashing against the industry. Also it has been increasing difficult to find some older music fare. It was and probably still is easier to go online and download than to buy the CD outright. These are just some theories, but the answer is probably little mix of them all. So what has the record Industry done to correct this problem.

Well besides suing their customers into submission they have decided to fight fire with fire, sort of. What might have started as a blight on the muic industry might turn into its savior and I refer to is the digital download. Industries duch the the RIAA are large corporations still run using business models of yesterday. It is hard for them to change as fast as technology does that is why a technology company has come to its rescue so to speak. Apple computers unveiled the IPOD in Oct 2001. Although there were other manufacturers of digital music players none other have come close to the popularity of the IPOD. Over the years IPOD has become a name brand such as Kleenex and Windows. They currently have a commanding share of the digital music players around the world, but the IPOD would be nothing without the software behind it, ITUNES.

iTunes might be part of the saving grace of the record industry it is also a bane to its users. For the recording industry it allowed or the legal sale of music to the consumer on a per track or album basis. It also institued a one nonfluctating price model for single song downloads, $0.99. This looks great for both the consumer and the RIAA. It allows the users to download music legally alacarte and the music industry is able to get its share of the revenue. Unfortunately not everything is all hunky-dorey. Just like most extremely good deals there is a catch or multple catches. First is the quality of the recording that is avaiable. Currently Apple only allows for songs to be downloaded at a 128bit sample in the propriety AAC format.
When you buy a CD you get a 1440bit sample that is the closest the mass consumer can get to the original recording. As you can see you are getting about 1/10 of the best. For most people this is not a problem because most of the extra bits are non-audible, but for some audiophiles this is a big deal. Apple is working on an answer for this with the introduction of a lossless audio compression format which will allow for a larger download, but an exact copy of the CD bit rate. The second issue which is probably the largest problem for many people is DRM.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. In simplest terms DRM prevents the unauthorized transfer from digital files from one person to another. Without this technology it would theoretically be possible for users to download the song once them upload the song to anyone that wanted it for free. With DRM in place this is not possible. When you download a song information about the device downloading the song is encoded into the file. When a song is played back this information is compared againt the device trying to play the song. If the information does not match you cannot play the song simple as that. This is not necessarily a bad thing knowing what the RIAA has been through with Napster they wanted to make sure that it was not going to happen again. What this does lead to is problems with what you can do with the music once you have it.

Since the music is tied directly to the computer there can be issues if you want to transfer your music to a new computer, if you want to transfer your music to multiple digital devices, if and how many CDs you can burn of your music, editing and sampling of songs, etc. If you were to buy a CD with the same music none of these issues come up and dollar for dollar you simply get a better value if you want to buy an album. This is because if you buy the album from the store it will cost at most $15. At iTunes becuase it is $0.99 a track you might have to spend more(unless there are special pricing on albums). Once I have the CD I first have a hard copy that is independent of the computer or device I play it on. Also I can make as many copies as I want on as many devices as I want. I am also getting a much higher quality copy and I can choose what format to save it in. All in all there is just more flexability to the consumer for buying the CD at a store. Now unfortunately the RIAA would say that everything you do besides play the CD is illegal. Another issue not necessarily of DRM, but of the IPOD itself and iTunes is the format that the music is which is the AAC format.

As you might have remembered early in this article I explained that the most popular format is MP3. This is where the problem in flexability occurs with the use of the iTunes music store. Most consumers do not realize that once you buy an Ipod an start downloading music from their store you are stuck with an Ipod device as long as you want to play any of the music you downloaded from their store. This is becuase iTunes only allows you to download music in this format and it is only playable on their devices. If you wanted to buy a competeing device from a different company you unfortuneately will not be able to play any of the music you had previously downloaded from iTunes. This effectively locks the consumer into buying the Ipod indefinately, which realistically borders on monopolistic behavior. Something that Microsoft is well aware of in its multiple monopoly hearings. So what solutions or alternatives are out there.

Well not many to be quite honest. Yes there are a host of music delivery systems from Napster(reborn like a phoenix), to Rhapsody, to Microsoft's own URGE. There are even more devices from pioneers like Creative, or deveopers over seas such as COWON and IRIVER. With all these different choices comes a billion different combinations of what works with what and what plays what. It is quite mind boggling which is why Apple wins becuase a person asks someone what they should buy that is easy to use and that friend probably having this same question before says Ipod of course. So what is the problem. Well DRM is one major obstacle without it and the RIAA will think everyone will go back to pirating and with it you are a prisoner of our own media. There is at least one download service that says to heck to DRM and has actually carved out such a niche that it is currently 2nd only to iTunes in downloads and that is eMusic.

What eMusic gives the consumer is ultimate flexibilty and cometeing price point. First it only offers MP3 downloads with no DRM. Which being the most flexible format available allows the consumer to copy it to as many devices as possible including computers, digital audio players (DAPS), and CDs. Not having to worry about DRM or competing formats means that the next music player you buy does not have to be from any particular company you can choose any of them. The other major point is the price point. Working on a subscription model. For 9.99 a month you can donload 40 tracks. This breaks down to $0.25 per track. Music lower than that of iTunes or any major competitor. With all this great news why is this not the defacto online music store. As I mentioned before they do not offer DRM on their music and with the issues the RIAA ran into before they are very hestitant not to have their music protected. None of the major 4 studios offers music downloads from eMusic. What this limits download to is not having top 40 or rap, but does offer more indie and other genres. eMusic has been working on acquiring as many of the smaller labels as possible in the hopes to one day getting one of the major players. What do you think will be the future solution of digital music?

I believe for one that piracy will not quite stop. It is too easy and too prevalent not to exist. Piracy can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing. With piracy people can sample before they buy. Some people will of course not buy, but they might and the more widespread the more people there will be to try it. When it comes to DRM I really hope it would just dissappear I know this might be a dream, but with the rise in popularity of eMusic if at least one major label decides to cross the line it could turn the industry on its ear. Ultimately it is the consumer that will have the final say. The record industry, artists, and Apple are only around becuase there are consumers that will buy the product. If the consumer decides that it is not working they will make the final decision. What do you think?


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