Music Piracy: from Napster to bittorrents

The Pirate Bay was one of the largest torrent sites around prior to its lawsuit
The Pirate Bay was one of the largest torrent sites around prior to its lawsuit

By Christopher Poon [Media Editor]

In this day and age, music piracy is as commonplace as student debt. Perhaps the two even have something to do with each other. Regardless, don’t pretend like you haven’t done it before.

Hell, you’re probably doing it right now.

Digital music is the the latest format to grace the music industry, and thanks to the evolution of technology and the Internet, it’s also the easiest format to pirate thus far. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘pirating’ is the illegal downloading of software and other copyrighted materials.
It took a while for the music industry to notice, but when file sharing programs like Napster, Limewire and Kazaa grew in popularity (at its peak Napster had 26.4 million users), the industry cried foul and launched an attack against file-sharing in general.

Many of the lawsuits filed against users and program creators were headed by the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA  represents recording industry distributors in the U.S. and are the best known advocates of shutting down file-sharing. You know those court cases where people are forced to pay thousands of dollars for downloading only a handful of songs? Thank the RIAA for that.

Napster was the first to fall, being forced to shut down by a U.S. court injunction in 2001. File sharing was dealt a heavy blow at the time, and a fierce debate was born.

Some decried the RIAA’s heavy-handed tactics, saying that file sharing helped to promote music and allowed people to be exposed to music that they wouldn’t normally have heard.

For example, a user in the U.S. may have heard about a band from Europe, but if the local radios or record stores don’t play or carry the band’s work, the user would be out of luck. Thanks to file sharing, the user would be able to download the band’s work and enjoy it.
If users are able to preview an entire album before purchasing, it also encourages artists to put out quality work. No more will people hear a single on the radio, run out and purchase the CD only to find that the rest of the album sucked. Which is basically like paying $14 for one good song.

This is where the critics of file sharing come in.

They argue that file sharing infringes on artists’ rights, and that downloading is a detriment to music sales everywhere. The rights of artists should be respected, that’s for certain. And so the question comes down to questioning what kinds of rights the consumer has and how that overlaps with those of the artist.

Regardless, the RIAA pressed on with their prosecution of users and sharers and people on both sides of the argument became even more vocal.
As the years and prosecutions continued, the list of shutdown file sharing programs grew longer. File sharers, sick of having to switch programs every year or two eventually began utilizing a different method for file sharing: bittorrents.
Bittorrent websites grew out of the ashes of file sharing programs, and users flocked to its easy accessibility, quicker download speeds and giant library of not only music and movies, but books, software and images as well.

Perhaps the most important reason for switching to bittorrents though, would have to be the increased difficulty in prosecuting someone who had used a torrent to download music. Because of the way the files were processed (different parts of files were available from other users all over the internet, rather than in one single location) it made it difficult for prosecutors to prove that an individual was sharing a file.

And so we’re back to square one, most companies are still against music downloads, but more and more bands are siding with file sharers. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails released their album, Ghosts I-IV via bittorrent as well as in stores and online. Despite having a free version available, the album still made $1.6 million within its first week, casting some doubt on the argument that file sharing harms the music industry.

There have been promising ventures into finding a compromise however, with Apple and its iTunes store, which allows users to download high-quality digital tracks by purchasing them. It also allows users to download individual songs, as well as full-length albums.
Factoring all of these together, and it’s no surprise that the music industry finds itself in a strange sort of transitional period unlike anything experienced before.