Deconstructing Napster (Part Two)

In the last installment of The Maelstrom, I explained why Napster needs to be immediately shut down. Artists like Courtney Love and Dr. Dre have spoken out against record companies and in favor of Napster, without providing a solution to the whole mess. It's interesting to note that Dr. Dre is an artist who relies heavily on sampling and looping techniques in his music and Ms. Love always relies on male "assistance" [Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan] to complete her albums. Anyway the main point about Napster is that songs belong to artists and if you download them without their permission, you're stealing. But here's the solution to the mess of evil record companies and the plight of recording artists:

1. Record companies may only pay a net of $40,000 to an artist on their first album if it sells millions of copies; but what that artist is also getting is name recognition with millions of fans. Name recognition, when marketed properly, is worth far more in the long run than that one lump sum payment. Recording artists must learn (like authors and actors have) how to capitalize on their name recognition, instead of crying about how the record companies that made them famous are ripping them off.

Right now, we are moving at lightening speed into the digital era, where the internet will start to level the distribution playing field. One specific suggestion for artists to take advantage of this is for established artists to offer their new album through the web only (perhaps for the first 6 months.) You could listen to 30-second samples of the new songs, read journal-type notes about the recording of the album or the current tour (written by band members.) Or you could download entire songs that would only play 3 times and then no longer work (this technology does currently exist.) The point is that Ms. Love and other musicians need to learn how to market their product themselves, taking advantage of new and innovative initiatives, if they want to reap a larger percentage of the profits of its sales. If they continue to have to rely only on a record company to market it, pay for its production, oversee distribution, pay for videos, etc., why should artists expect to see a larger percentage of sales revenue? In the big picture of how someone gets interested in and ultimately buys a Courtney Love record, the artist does a small percentage of the work involved. Simply because they write and play the music doesn't entitle them to a huge percentage of sales. There are other, much more important and costly factors involved in the financial success of a record, and I think artists need to recognize that.

2. When bands first sign a recording contract, they have absolutely no leverage - they have no proof that their album will sell, no matter how good it may be. They should understand this going in. And when the contract runs out, if they have become multi-platinum artists, they then have the leverage of a proven track record to negotiate a better deal. If they don't have a marketing strategy going in, they'll still be screwed. If artists think that record companies should simply pony up tons of dough to support decadent habits/lifestyles with no reason to think they'll have a good return on the investment, they're stupid. Like anyone else, they should plan out their careers or suffer the consequences.

For those of you who have never created intellectual property, and especially the AOL poll 80%ers who think Napster is A-OK, let me explain a few things. The instant you create something (a song, a story, a poem, a novel, a sculpture, a painting) it is your property and technically immediately copyrighted. No one can use it to make money (or for any other reason, but making money is more provable in a court of law) without your permission. You can register it for an official copyright with the copyright office (Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington DC 20559) for a fee, and this helps in potential litigation, but it is not absolutely necessary for your rights to be protected.

So any song written and recorded is property of the artist who created it and only that artist can decide how it is to be distributed. Now, in the instances where you tape a CD from your buddy, these are really unpunishable transgressions. The price of blank tapes and CDs, by the way, have a percentage built in which compensates record companies and artists for revenues lost in this manner.

But a site like Napster makes millions of dollars by allowing people to distribute and use the property of artists for free. This is clearly and blatantly copyright infringement and theft, outright. It is the equivalent of walking into a record store, taking a CD from the rack, and walking out without paying. How a court ordered an injunction recently to enable to Napster to continue operations is beyond me. If a higher court does not order Napster to pay damages and cease operations immediately it will be the biggest loss for copyright law yet in this country. Imagine if you made something, OK? You had an idea, brought it to fruition, and somebody walked into your home and took the manifestation of that idea away from you, reproduced it, and started giving it to everyone who walked past his house. This is what you're doing when you download from Napster.

And what all of this is leading to is something nobody wants: strict federal regulation of the internet. So while you're enjoying your Brittany Spears MP3 file, what's going to happen (because of the publicity surrounding this controversial case) is that the great freedom of the internet will be handcuffed by stringent federal regulations. I hope those 80%ers will be happy then, short-sighted as they are. Once the internet gets to the point where rampant and obvious thievery is the norm, the federal government will be forced to step in (in the form of mandated federal registration of websites and active monitoring of content), whereas so far they have prudently decided to be hands off.

So if you're all for the Nazi-Germany-like constraints on free distribution of ideas, and enjoy the nightmarish concept of another Big Brother eye on popular culture, then you should cheer loud and long if Napster is allowed to maintain its criminal activities by an upcoming court mandate. If not, you should bombard your Congressperson with letters expressing your concern about this landmark case, and protest a pro-Napster decision with the kind of passion you would if someone were directly threatening your personal right to free speech and all its manifestations. Because that's really what this case is all about.