Thursday: 09/05/02

Bury Them Deep
There are some greedy, shifty creeps in the record industry, no doubt. They charge too much for their product. They push terrible contracts on artists. They foolishly overlook the fact that the quickest way to achieve the unimpeachable control over digital music distribution that everyone says they want would be to offer their entire catalogs in downloadable MP3 format for a low monthly fee.

But for all the record industry's sins and errors, you have to give them credit: even as their critics dismiss them as weaselly, tin-eared middlemen, they somehow keep managing to find, sign, develop, and distribute artists that fans can't live without.

Of course, you could say that their success is due to their status as the only game in town. But while that may have been true 20 years ago, it's certainly not true now. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of non-RIAA record labels releasing CDs these days. There are countless additional artists simply making their music available on the web for free. We're drowning in music now, free music, so much music that eventually new artists will probably start paying fans to listen to their songs. (After all, labels already pay radio stations for air-time, and the Internet is all about eliminating the middleman, right?)

But even with all that music, we still want the music that the RIAA-affiliated labels own so badly that we're willing to break the law to get it. So you have to give those weaselly, tin-eared middlemen their due, at least until MTV features its first episode of Cribs.

Of course, the achievements of traditional middlemen needn't erase artists' hopes that more virtuous middlemen emerge on the web. Napster was a start, of course, at least for Limp Bizkit, which received $1.8 million from the file-sharing pioneer to subsidize its t-shirt sales. Other online middlemen hardly seem like an improvement over their forebears, however. Ebay has been doing a brisk bootleg business for years now, making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in fees off such sales while paying artists and record companies absolutely nothing. Even worse than Ebay, however, is Madster, aka Aimster, aka the greedy, shifty creeps who actually manage to make the traditional middlemen of the record industry look comparatively saintly.

When Madster started out as a free file-trading service, it was just shamelessly opportunistic. Sometime around November, 2001, however, it achieved a level of craven parasitic gall that no doubt had the record industry's sleaziest operators secretly genuflecting. That's when Madster started charging subscribers $4.95 a month for its service. How much of that money went to the artists whose songs were being shared amongst the service's subscribers? Zero. How much of that money went to the copyright owners of those songs? Zero. Madster was even ripping off its subscribers, essentially making them pay $4.95 each month to perform the promotional/distribution duties that labels and retailers have traditionally undertaken.

Yesterday, a federal judge delivered an injunction against this egregious middleman, describing it as an entity "whose very raison d'etre appears to be the facilitation of and contribution to copyright infringement on a massive scale."

According to this AP article, Madster founder John Deep "said he didn't think there was a lot of copyrighted material shared" on the service.

Because Madster uses encryption technology, Deep insists that he can't possibly police transactions between users. As the judge presiding over the case put it, "Through the use of encryption technology contained within the Aimster software, the individual users are assured of complete privacy in their online transaction. In particular, Deep claims that Defendants have no knowledge whatsoever of when its users are exchanging files, who are exchanging files, or what files are being exchanged."

While it's standard practice these days to drape one's lack of ethics in the glib robes of technological manifest destiny, this time the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because who would pay $4.95 a month to trade songs whose copyright holders have truly made them available for free? Indeed, if Deep actually managed to get a hundred, or even, say, one person to pay him $4.95 a month for the right to share only songs from and other sources of authorized MP3s, then he deserves a medal and I take everything back. Otherwise, here's hoping the U.S. District Court encrypts Madster for good.

-- G. Beato

09/04/02: White Gold
09/02/02: 24 Hour Party People
08/29/02: Slender: Liberal Lies About Ann Coulter
08/19/02: The Blogosphere in Action
08/07/02: The Bleat Goes On

Also recommended:
Cooking With Bigfoot

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