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Still, the industry's apoplexy over downloading music is not without some justification. There are, literally, billions of songs copied over file-sharing networks every month. Unlike taping, which results in a quality loss from the original, the millionth copy of an mp3 download is as good as the first (although audiophiles will say an mp3 -- which is compressed -- is not as pristine sounding as a legitimate store-bought CD). And on a file-sharing network like Kazaa, popular songs spread faster than a cold in kindergarten.
BigChampagne is an Atlanta-based company that monitors what songs are most often swapped online. It counts as its clients some of the world's biggest record labels, who, even though they disparage the means, are eager to see what songs are most often traded. What's surprising -- or not surprising, depending on your perspective -- is that BigChampagne's "TopSwaps" list looks (at first glance anyway) similar to Billboard's list of songs played and sold in conventional formats. For instance, during the week of July 14, the most downloaded song on file-sharing networks was Chingy's "Right Thurr." Billboard's Top 100, meanwhile, had "Right Thurr" at No. 4.
With these comparisons in mind, it's probably no surprise that last year the number of CDs sold in the U.S. fell 9 percent from 2001, a year that was itself down 6 percent from 2000.
"The cycle is bigger than anything in the past, but at this point it's not enormously bigger," says Stan Liebowitz, an economist at the University of Texas at Dallas, who authored what is perhaps the only academic study looking at the effect of mp3s on record sales. "If you have one more year like it, you won't have anything like it in the modern era."
The record industry isn't wasting time. Before the Verizon case was even decided, the industry had already taken the battle to what is widely perceived as the biggest culprits -- college students. In April, the RIAA sued four students at four different universities, accusing each of them of running local file-sharing networks on their respective campuses. One of those was Jesse Jordan, a 19-year-old student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Last October, Jordan was, as he says from his parents' home on Long Island, looking for "something to waste some of my spare time on." Within his college's computer network there were several search engines already, where students could troll for songs in their neighbors' hard drives. But, as Jordan says, "there was room for improvement." Often, a search would freeze the browser if you clicked on the folder of a user whose computer was turned off.
Jordan's better mousetrap was called ChewPlastic. News of it spread through word of mouth, and from signs he posted around campus. He figures half the student body used ChewPlastic at one time or another to trade files. But in April, Jordan learned he was being sued. In its lawsuit, the RIAA said he had "hijacked an academic computer network and installed on it a marketplace for copyright piracy."
"I didn't want to settle," Jordan says, but fighting a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the record industry, win or lose, would have cost his family too much. The two sides settled on Jordan's life savings -- $12,000. At the settlement, Jordan recalls a snide warning from an RIAA attorney: "You don't want to have another visit with a dentist like me."
Illegal downloading, Jordan says now, "may very well be hurting their business. But they're not taking the right approach. You can't sue potential customers and then expect they'll buy your stuff."
Jordan, as it turned out, had the last laugh. Right after the settlement, he posted a link on ChewPlastic.com that allowed sympathizers to help replenish his savings. Within six weeks, he'd recouped everything, plus $5.67. With the extra money, he bought a sandwich.
The RIAA's vendetta against downloaders might not be making them any new friends. But then again, they didn't have many to begin with. Music fans loathe the record business. To them, the industry has been taken over by MBAs who screw artists and customers alike. Why else would the cost of a new CD have climbed to as much as $20, when other technologies -- CD players, DVD players, VCRs -- have plummeted in price?
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