Share the Music


On Tuesday, the Recording Industry Association of America filed another round of lawsuits against people who allegedly downloaded and shared copyrighted music. In doing so, the association finally topped the 3,000-served mark.

The association argues that file sharing is directly responsible for the widely reported slump in CD sales from 2000 to 2003. This, however, ignores the fact that the economy was in a post-Sept. 11 recession and that many other industries suffered even greater declines in their sales at the time. Still, it is reasonable to assume that downloading was a cause of some drop in CD sales.

But this simple narrative is a bit more complicated. The two primary direct competitors for young music buyers' dollars - video games and DVD's, both also widely and freely traded on the Internet - continued to do quite well. And during the first quarter of 2004, CD sales in the United States rose 10.6 percent over the previous year, an upturn that the recording industry association confidently attributed to its lawsuits. But a report issued in April by the Pew Internet and American Life Project stated that the number of people who said they had downloaded music files during the same first quarter had increased by 5 million, to a total of 23 million, from the project's previous survey in late 2003.

In other words, at the exact moment file-sharing activity rose, so did CD sales. These numbers supported an economic study by Profs. Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman S. Strumpf. Their findings indicated that file sharing had no measurable effect on music sales. "At most, file sharing can explain a tiny fraction of this decline," the professors concluded. These men are not anti-copyright activists by any measure - Mr. Oberholzer-Gee is a professor at the Harvard Business School and Mr. Strumpf is a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.

With its new round of lawsuits, the recording industry association is once again demonstrating its failure to recognize the obvious: file sharing isn't going away. Consumers have grown attached to it, and more and more musicians believe file sharing can help promote their music in an age of limited play lists at radio stations. Given its hold in our culture, downloading, in some form, must be part of any solution to this impasse.

A blanket license model, like that legalizing the use of copyrighted material by cable television and radio, can point us to a future system that might work for file sharing. There would be differences, of course, but there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Various lawyers, professors and organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting individual freedoms in the digital age, have offered workable solutions.

Simply put, these varying proposals go like this: given that the movie, video game and software industries continue to grow - and file sharing's harm to the music industry is debatable - additional fees needn't be exorbitant. The foundation's plan calls for generating a $3 billion pot of money - the amount the industry says it is losing annually - by charging consumers a $5 monthly licensing fee. The fee could come bundled with, for instance, a consumer's broadband Internet access bill and would be similar to paying a cable bill. Rather than replace the music industry's business model, this would supplement it with a steady revenue stream.

Some critics call these plans unrealistic, but a legally sanctioned cable television system also seemed like a pipe dream in the 1960's because of the television industry's resistance.

It would be dishonest, and foolish, to suggest that hammering out a compromise palatable to all sides is going to be easy. But the alternative - to do nothing, or to pass new industry-backed legislation - would continue to criminalize the everyday behavior of millions. And it would continue to stifle an innovative way to distribute artistic works.

Kembrew McLeod, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, is the author of "Owning Culture."