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Lost in Cyberspace

Entertainment firms ignore techological changes at own peril

This article was originally published on date by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

The recording industry has won its case against (for now, pending a certain appeal), and is pursuing Napster with equal zeal. And the film industry recently won an injunction to block distribution of a computer program that allows copying DVD discs.

Dark days for freedom on the Internet?

Perhaps. But in the glee of their legal victories, the entertainment industry needs to realize that it can't put the genie back in the bottle.

Napster (which allows individuals to trade their digital music files) and (which allows people to make virtual copies of their CD libraries) may lose their court battles, may even go out of business, but the ability of individual consumers to copy music and videos digitally isn't going away – and that's an issue the entertainment companies don't seem willing to face up to.

The overlooked fact in these cases against music- and video-copying software and services is that the government is powerless to stop the spread of the technology behind them. You can shut down's, but you can't stop individuals from trading MP3-formatted files. You can seize Napster's servers, but you can't stop the spread of Gnutella, an open source program that does much the same thing as Napster.

Nobody owns Gnutella or the MP3 format (just as nobody owns Linux), so who will the high-powered lawyers file their lawsuits against next? In all likelihood, they'll pick a few poor saps at random and try to use them as an example to frighten everyone else into stopping – but it won't work.

The fact is that what's going on here is a technological sea change so dramatic that, like Gutenberg's press, it has cultural overtones. Just as Gutenberg's invention democratized the flow of information in its day (taking it out of the hands of those who could afford to hire scribes to copy books by hand), so does the Internet further that information revolution today.

Information cannot be controlled in the same way in the age of the Internet as it could before. Big business and big government can pass all the laws they want, conduct all the high-profile trials they want, but people are going to continue to share music and videos among themselves. The average person sees nothing wrong with it (and hasn't since the introduction of the cassette tape more than 30 years ago), and cracking down on folks for what most see as acceptable behavior only has the effect of alienating the entertainment industry's most loyal customers.

Those businesses – and individual artists – who thrive most in this new environment will be those who best adapt. They won't necessarily capitulate – few argue the point that artists ought to make some money off their creative efforts – but will find ways of fitting into this new online market.

It may well be that the RIAA lawsuit against is the dying gasp of a soon-to-be-obsolete industry. In the democratic environs of the Internet, no cartel can control the distribution pipeline. Anyone with an Internet site can bypass the distributors who have long maintained a chokehold over the entertainment industry. Musicians and filmmakers of the future are unlikely to need record companies or movie studios in order to find an audience – they can simply reach their audience on their own via the Internet. may or may not survive this legal assault, and Napster's fate may be equally uncertain, but they have shown what the future holds – and it's a picture that can't be of much comfort to the record and movie industry executives who see their way of business, and life, disappearing.