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Legal terror effective

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 24, 2003
(Issue 2143, Computers Rock!)

The early results are in, and it seems the Recording Industry Association of America's war against its customers is having an effect – it seems that the number of people using the various file-sharing services has shrunk since the RIAA started filing lawsuits against those it accuses of downloading songs illegally.

Of course, the RIAA's attempt to use the courts to terrorize people into not sharing music has to be viewed in a larger context: That of the music industry being scared to death of the Internet.

With the MP3 encoding system, in which songs can be made compact enough for quick downloads while still sounding as good as they did on the original CD, the technological threshold for sharin music was lowered.

Pop a CD into your computer, click "copy," pop a blank one in, and hit "burn" – voila, instant, indistinguishable copy.

And with the growing popularity of high-bandwidth Internet connections, fewer and fewer folks were trading music on CD and were moving their music libraries to the 'Net – where anyone could download them.

While nearly every business expert of repute agrees that the music industry's slumping sales have more to do with the global economic downturn following 9-11, shareholders are rarely so understanding. Having a ready scapegoat – the Internet, in this case – has saved many a high-level executive from a quick firing.

By trying to shift blame from 9-11 and the industry's own lack of artist development, the suits in Hollywood managed to save their own skins – even if it came at the expense of the skin of 12-year-old girls living in public housing, as one of the first RIAA targets turned out to be.

And if the latest surveys show fewer folks trading music online, that doesn't necessarily translate into turning the music industry's sales forecast around.

It's entirely possible that the bad taste left by the RIAA's gestapo tactics against individuals who share music is going to backfire on them in the form of their lower sales staying low. Consumers may well be so turned off by the RIAA's very public and very heavy-handed tactics of legal ruination that they simply decide there are other things to spend their money on, other ways to support their favorite bands.

Half the results are in – downloads have decreased. Whether sales pick up, we'll find out after Christmas when the holiday sales reports are in.

Accountability in software?

A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles in late September against Microsoft accuses the software behemoth of putting the entire world's infrastructure at risk by rashly seeking a monopoly that exposed said infrastucture to massive failure.

What's interesting about the lawsuit (which is seeking class-action status) is that it seeks to hold Microsoft responsible for the performance of its software.

Software publishers have been remarkably adept at getting the government and courts to release them from liability for their products. Software doesn't work as advertised? Tough. And in the early days of the software publishing industry, that probably made sense. It was new, and letting customers sue every programmer whose word processor or spreadsheet wasn't bug-free would have stifled development of software to the point that we'd all probably still be using Apple II computers.

The attorney who filed the suit, Dana Taschner, was savvy enough not to attack that principle directly. Rather than risk the ire of the entire software industry, his lawsuit seems to argue that Microsoft is a different case from other software publishers because it has pursued a monopoly by integrating the operating system with other applications.

In other words, the lawsuit argues that Microsoft ought to be held responsible for the performance of its products because it has pursued market domination to a point that the rest of us rely on them for everyday life.

Ought to be fun watching this one progress ...