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Threats of war

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 21, 2003
(Issue 2108, Let's Get Together – Online)

Whether we want to admit it or not, war is already here. The enemy has targeted us, is amassing more weapons, and intends to win at any cost.

The Middle East?

Well, not as this is written – although that may well have changed by the time you read this.

I'm writing, though, about an economic war.

Quite simply, it's time for consumers to accept the fact that the music and film industries have declared war on us, and to fight back with every tool available.

I realize that we just visited this issue two weeks ago, but the recording and film industries keep raising the stakes with their bare-fisted assault on all of our civil liberties.

The best defense

A boycott might be the best way to fight back – although it was a dip in CD sales that first drove the RIAA to its present strategy of legally desperate tactics.

Still, how else besides denying them our money to we voice our displeasure? Simply don't buy any new releases – no more new DVDs, no more new CDs or cassettes.

At least not until Hollywood calls a cease-fire in its all-out assault on both consumers and our constitutional rights.

Now, this isn't easy – and it's not fair to the musicians or actors.

Heck, I've been a music critic for the past 20 years. And I've been an avid music fan since my cousins Renee and Kelly came to visit us the summer I was 12 and they turned me on to Paul McCartney.

Music illuminates and informs our lives in ways that transcend our ability to describe them. It brings richness, perspective and, well, fun to our lives.

Quite simply, music matters.

But not to the point that we can in good conscience stand idly by while the recording industry attempts to rewrite the law in ways that do serious harm to society as a whole.

The latest affronts

The Recording Industry Association of America and its allies in Hollywood behave on the assumption that each of us is guilty of piracy. By trying to shut down all file-sharing services, the RIAA and Co. are seeking an unprecedented judicial assault on a generic technology, as well as on our right to have a reasonable use of the music and movies we purchase.

Even in the late 1960s, when the recording and film industries tried to block cassette tape recorders from being sold to home users (with the ultimately rejected argument that bootlegged cassettes would drive them out of business), they didn't try to ban the entire concept of recordable tapes. Reel-to-reel tape decks were never targeted, for instance.

But that's precisely the tactic the Hollywood moguls are taking this time: Napster was set up specifically to trade music files, and its demise did no damage to the rest of us. But other file-sharing technologies – like Kazaa – were designed from the ground floor up to be used to share files of any type or format, not just music and videos. People are using Kazaa to share all kinds of data: recipes, home photography, original sheet music.

Yet because some – perhaps even most – folks who use Kazaa do so to trade music files, the RIAA is suing to shut down the entire service.

The RIAA has also found a friendly judge to order an Internet service provider to turn over the name of a subscriber accused of music piracy.

Never before has a telephony company been asked to serve as an arm of the government. The telephone companies have traditionally been held to be what is known legally as "common carriers" – that is, they simply provide a connection, and have no stake, interest nor liability in what is done with it.

Perhaps that's why SBC, the service provider in the case in question, is appealing the initial court ruling requiring it to turn over the name of subscriber the RIAA is accusing of downloading music files.

And SBC is no wilting violet – they're as big as any of the music labels, and unlikely to take such arrogance from the RIAA lightly.

As bad as SBC has sometimes been for consumers (refusing to offer residential symmetric DSL, for instance), this go-round, it's a blessing to have them in our corner.

What's next?

The recording industry is appealing a European ruling that cleared the teen-ager who wrote the DeCSS DVD-cracking software of any wrongdoing.

And the film and music industries continue to sue overseas firms in U.S. courts for violation of U.S. laws – even though the companies have no presence in this country.

To their shame, the U.S. courts keep claiming they do have jurisdiction anywhere in the world (ask Manuel Noriega about that).

It will be interesting to see if these same U.S. courts will adhere to a Supreme Court ruling that consumers have a right to make personal back-up copies of any and all soft materials, or whether these courts will continue kowtowing to the well-oiled entertainment giants.