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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2002/10/23
by David Steinberg

Fighting Technology With Technology

Since the creation of Napster and MP3 sharing, the record industry has
answered with one tactic. Over and over again they fought with the
lawsuit. Napster was shut down but replacements keep popping up.
Fighting them must be frustrating for the RIAA. Peer to peer trading
networks can work for a while before they get well known enough to
attract notice. For years now we’ve seen people create new networks
even before the old ones can disappear. That strategy was obviously
not working well.
Reading the rants of the diehard peer to peer fans on has
been educational. While I don’t agree with all of their points –
their gloats about how they could bring down the music industry just
fueled the RIAA’s need to bring the networks down – they had some
interesting arguments. Mp3 trading does have a beneficial side
effect to the record companies in that it exposes people to music that
they wouldn’t otherwise hear. Sure some people are going to just
leech the free music, but others will end up buying albums from
artists that they would have never heard of otherwise. It might just
be a coincidence, but record sales went up during the height of the
Napster days and fell again when Napster was gone. In addition to
that, outlawing technology that people want very rarely works. The
laws that record and movie lobbyists want to get passed are draconian
enough that they would practically shut down the computer revolution.
It makes sense that they would want that; anything short wouldn’t be
sufficient to stop copying of files. However, the net result would be
similar to the Soviet Union’s outlawing of Xerox machines. In order
to stop a minor crime, the entire economy would suffer. Obviously
some third path is needed… and Phish might have just discovered it.
There were many threads on before the Trey album got
released. Some people had advanced copies of the cd and they put up
tracks from it on various file servers. Furthurnet even had to shut
itself down for a while to get rid of the copies there. About a week
before the album came out, all of this activity stopped. Was it an
effective new law that stopped the copying? No. It was the Trey
player that Elektra supplied. Instead of having to figure out which
file sharing service had the right files and do an elaborate search to
find out which "Push On Through the Day" was the studio version, all
you had to do is enter a URL. Not only could you hear the songs, but
there were amusing photos of the band with each track.
Now you might be wondering why this is any better. What’s the
difference between being able to hear tracks on that site versus
having mp3s. The difference is control. If I get a full set of mp3s
of an album, I control the files. I can move them to a portable
player. I can listen to them when my computer is offline. If I’m
willing to deal with lesser sound quality, there are fewer reasons to
own the album. On the other hand, the preview pages – being a Flash
site – are controlled by the webmaster. While I can listen to the
songs from a computer, I can’t easily save them to my hard drive to
listen at another time. It really is an intelligent move. They get
all of the promotional value of people trading the files without the
hit to sales. It worked well enough at this goal that Vida Blue,
Pork Tornado, and Gordon/Kottke set up similar pages for their albums.
The idea is starting to spread. Even a band only tangentially related
to the jambands scene – Jurassic 5 – had set up a similar page. Legal
challenges to file trading are unlikely to work, but giving listeners
the ability to preview an album without actually having the files is
quite likely to succeed.
This is an elegant solution. All of our "fair use" rights [1] are
preserved unlike with the copy protected cds that some people are
trying to push. What this does is destroy the incentive to distribute
free copies throughout the net. Giving customers 90% of what they
want in terms of previewing an album and still providing an incentive
to buy it – perhaps someone in the record industry is getting a
clue. Maybe there is a chance for a peaceful resolution to this
fight after all.
[1] These are rights that we have with any media. The most important
one is being able to make a backup copy in case the original gets
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at
and he was the stats section editor for The Phish Companion.

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