The Past, Present, and Future of Downloading Music on the Internet


The Past, Present, and Future of Downloading Music on the Internet

Almost everyone these days has heard at least something of the ongoing controversy over downloading music off the internet.  Beginning with Napster in 1999, the sharing of online music has been at the forefront of the fight over copyright protections and the internet.  Many people to this day still aren't sure what downloads are illegal or why record companies have taken such a strong stance against illegal music downloading.  Here's some basic information about the current state of music downloading, its history and the possible future of the industry.

The Beginnings of Music Downloading

Although file sharing over the internet had been possible for many years through avenues such as IRC and USENET, the first file sharing program dedicated exclusively to music file sharing was Napster, which was launched in 1999. Napster introduced a revolutionary new idea that was to forever change the way people thought about music: peer to peer file sharing.  Peer to peer file sharing, often abbreviated as simply p2p, allows different users swap songs, with no regards for copyright infringement.  Copyrights are legal rights to songs that are meant to ensure that artists are compensated for the music they create.  When copyrights are ignored, musicians don't get paid.

Of course many users of Napster didn't see it this way.  Many users justified using peer to peer networks saying that the service they used only took money from incredibly popular musicians who were already rich, and that unheard of bands benefited from the exposure that peer to peer file sharing provided.  Others claimed that they were only downloading versions of songs they already owned on vinyl or cassette or that they were only securing online copies to help protect delicate compact discs. 

Whatever the reasons for illegal downloading, those using peer to peer services ignored a few simple facts.  First, downloading material that you don't have a copyright license for is stealing, and it is against the law.  Also, illegal downloading fails to take into consideration the large amount of money spent to record albums and make music videos.  Without record sales to recoup these costs, record companies would be less willing to take chances on experimental bands and fringe artists, thus having a negative impact on the overall quality of music available. If record companies can't sell their product, bands and individual artists as a whole could, quite literally, fade into obscurity.

But despite serious questions of ethical legitimacy, illegal downloading only increased in popularity.  This led to numerously lawsuits, most notably the one that caused Napster to shut down and pay tens of millions of dollars in restitution for the unhonored copyrights.  The Napster name and logo were sold to pay these fees, and the company that purchased the rights now operates Napster 2.0, a legitimate pay per download service.  The recording companies also filed numerous suits against individuals who they alleged were responsible for large amounts of copyright loss.  For instance, Jammie Thomas, was the first defendant in a file-sharing lawsuit. She was sued in federal court, and ordered to pay $220,000 dollars in damages for music she illegally shared on the internet.  Ms. Thomas ignored a cease-and-desist request, as well as a request for a small out of court settlement, both sent by the record company before filing the law suit. 


The Second Wave of File Sharing Programs, and the Threat of Adware

After Napster's demise, other file sharing networks appeared all over the internet, much to the chagrin of record companies and many musical artists.  One of the most prominent of these second wave peer to peer clients was Kazaa, a less than reputable program that added the threats of adware and spyware to the already dangerous activity of illegal downloading.  Bundled with the Kazaa software were more than six separate malware programs that logged and recorded your internet use, popped up unwanted ads, and even altered the sites your browser attempted to visit.  The spyware and adware bundled with Kazaa did not uninstall when Kazaa was uninstalled, making it difficult to remove the unwanted programs. Kazaa opened the door for malware to be bundled with file sharing clients, only to be sued, shut down, and made to pay a hefty fine for their part in copyright infringement.

The legacy of this dangerous software lives on.  Although there are some peer to peer sites that continue to operate, such as Limewire, there are no guarantees that downloads of this software doesn't include potentially threatening software, including adware, spyware, and computer viruses.  Moreover, though, the threat of legal action over peer to peer music sharing looms larger everyday.


The Future:  Legal Music Downloads and the Three Strikes Rule

Many governments are currently considering methods to curb illegal music downloading.  France has already began to implement a program whereby illegal downloaders are put on a "three strikes" program, that cuts off internet access after two warnings. The United Kingdom is considering similar measures. This model seems to be quite useful, as most downloaders curb their illegal activity after a single warning.  But across the world, many people prefer a different solution to music downloading:  finding legal avenues to access music over the internet.

One of the most popular of these sites is iTunes, which allows users to download single songs on demand, at the rate of ninety nine cents a song, with a discount for buying entire albums.  This service has proved to be hugely popular.  With legal music available affordably and easily, the demand for illegal downloading has dropped dramatically.  Sites such as Myspace music have also helped to stem illegal downloading by allowing users to listen to music from their favorite artists, but not make copies.

Also, some musical artists are taking matters into their own hands.  Trent Reznor, the driving force behind Nine Inch Nails has released the band's last two albums over the internet.  Rather than fighting illegal download, Reznor made the album available for free, but also gave fans the option of paying five dollars.  This release has been hailed by many as a business model for the future of the recording industry.

There are also some proposals from music companies themselves that would charge a flat fee per month for access to an entire catalog of songs. For one low monthly fee, you could download as many songs as you like. Artists would then be paid according to a system set up by the music companies.

So, with a better understanding of the history of downloading music, it's possible to forecast a bright future for music on the internet.  Sites such as iTunes have shown that people are willing to pay for music downloads, if the fees are reasonable and the content is immediately available.  Artists such as Nine Inch Nails are paving the way for a future where illegal downloading is not only frowned upon, but unnecessary.

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