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Meditations on baseball and file swapping

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks whether the record moguls are about to repeat the same mistakes that almost landed the lords of baseball in such hot water.

It's hard to say which side in the baseball labor dispute nearly did the better job of mucking it up for the rest of us--when it comes to pigheadedness and unvarnished greed, the owners and the players gave each other a pretty good run for the money.

Watching professional baseball's periodic impulse toward self-destruction, I can't help but note parallels to another quarrel over money and power: the endless tempest over the digital downloading of music.

The record industry's legal efforts will only reinforce the impression that the music business is run by a clique of clueless prima donnas out of touch with the new reality that is the Internet.

This other front-page controversy inexplicably remains no closer to resolution than it was two-and-a-half years ago. Now it threatens to drag down a music business too hidebound to give a little to get a little.

Had there been a modicum of good will and creative thinking, you'd think the protagonists (as in baseball) would have smoked the peace pipe long ago.

Think again, folks.

Starting with the assault on Napster and continuing to the present day, the people running the big studios have treated this dispute as the moral equivalent of war. All the while, they have refused to budge from the party line that digital file swapping is theft. It is a position that, by definition, puts compromise beyond the pale. (After all, how can you treat with common criminals?)

But treating this as a zero-sum game, where there is one winner and one loser, hasn't brought the music industry any closer to final victory. Illegal digital downloading is more rampant than ever. So how does the industry respond? It sics the lawyers on individual users accused of facilitating the sharing of digital music.

Oh yeah, as if that's going to help.

The truth is, it will only reinforce the impression that the music business is run by a clique of clueless prima donnas out of touch with the new reality that is the Internet.

When Napster happened, Internet file swapping took off and...ahhh, revenge at last!

They may be able to keep it up for a while, but then what? The legacy of baseball's own greed has come back to haunt the owners, with power shifting from owners toward the players. For baseball, free agency was the catalyst; for music consumers, it's going to be peer-to-peer technologies.

You don't think consumers aren't dying for some way to stick it to the record barons? Funny, but the cost of an album always remains basically the same. But when Napster happened, Internet file swapping took off and...ahhh, revenge at last!

The Recording Industry Association of America now says file swaps were responsible for a 7 percent decline in CD shipments during the first half of this year. Whatever the accuracy of the numbers, this much is clear: The technological Pandora's box is open, and battalions of lawyers will not be enough to stuff the genie back in.

The music moguls see this as a battle over control, and they are right. But the studios had ample time to find an imaginative business model that made sense for the Internet. (I find it hard to believe that PressPlay and MusicNet are the best they can come up with. Save that one for another column.)

Meanwhile, the Internet download phenomenon is allowing individual artists to experiment with the technology and function as veritable free agents.

Consider, for example, the case of Janis Ian, a singer-songwriter who is rarely on major radio or television despite being a nine-time Grammy nominee. The risk to an aging artist is that once a record is out of print, a career can wither. But Ian has stayed in the public eye by putting free MP3s of her songs on the Web for downloading.

"Napster and file swapping is great," she says. "What's the objection to trading stuff people can't buy?"

That's still heresy with the studios, which remain obsessed with trying to maintain a status quo that leaves them in unchallenged control.

That they muffed their first chance by failing to stay in front of the music-sharing phenomenon was a case of bad judgment. If they muff this chance, it would be a spectacular example of bad business.

As for the baseball strike? Negotiators happily pulled a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute. Maybe there's hope after all.