By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

August 28, 2005

Like the teacher who kept the whole class after school because one clown was throwing spitballs, the music industry has decided to treat all of its customers like potential thieves because some have stolen its music.

Of course, this kind of reaction isn't new for the big media companies. The 8-track, as awful as it sounded, and the later, better compact cassette carved worry lines into the facade of the Recording Industry Association of America. Hollywood nearly stroked out when the Sony BetaMax ushered in the VCR age. And as anyone who lurks at flea markets or record shows knows, copies of hit tapes and CDs and DVDs with cheesy black-and-white copier-machine covers have been available forever.

Then along came digital files that allow the 977th generation to sound just as good as the first, and the Internet, and the relatively benign practice of making a mix tape for a pal became the original Napster: making all of those tracks available to anyone in the world who could download them.

The RIAA says illegal copying and distribution of its CDs has accounted for billions of lost revenue and a decline in the unit sales of CDs. Undoubtedly, that is partly true. But a cynic might suggest the antidote for declining CD sales is better music, more encouragement of long-term artists and lower prices. In fact, the industry is experimenting with the DualDisc, which adds surround-sound tracks, videos, lyrics and other goodies that are so far not available from legal download sites such as Apple's iTunes music store.

But the music industry has decided that the solution is to restrict how music fans can use the music they've paid for -- not just in tunes downloaded from iTunes or the new, legal Napster, but on physical CDs. What they are in fact doing is trying to change the compact between purchaser and record company: You are no longer buying the music; you are buying a license that allows you to use the music as the label sees fit.

Sony/BMG has been copy-protecting many of its new releases, and EMI has begun experimenting with it. And that accounts for 50 percent of the Big 4 major labels. The other two -- Warner Group and Universal -- are in wait-and-see mode. Interestingly, the burgeoning independent labels, for whom piracy losses presumably would hurt more than the majors, are not rushing headlong after Sony/BMG.

Graphic by Rich Hughes | St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Research by Barry Gilbert