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Grin and Share It

The music industry’s lame lawsuits against MP3-loving kids aren’t going to put the file-sharing genie back into the bottle. As Martha might say, it’s a good thing.


Like probably every parent of teenagers, I’ve had a few moments of being worried that the Recording Industry Association of America might sue my children.

I wonder if the heads of the major labels, or the studio chiefs, or the moguls themselves, are worried that their children or grandchildren (or Jack Valenti’s great-grandchildren) will be swept up in the dragnet. Or, on the other hand, is there some amount of reasonable confidence that the lawyers and PR people combing the list of downloaders for possible prosecution would not be so foolish as to round up the offspring of the very people who are doing the suing (and who are paying the bills for the lawsuits)?

It is possible that these entertainment-business honchos have actually sat down with their children and had a heart-to-heart discussion about the tragedy of downloading—it’s even possible that they’ve met with a receptive audience.

But unlikely. No parent wants to whistle into the wind.

If 40 million people are already doing this (in the U.S. alone), a power shift has taken place, a behavioral sea change has occurred, a generation gap has opened up that is so profound that all the suing in the world isn’t going to put the toothpaste back in the tube. What we have here is not miscreant behavior but a fait accompli. And, indeed, the various high-concept efforts and PR schemes to beat back the tide will fail because, inevitably, it is not just your customers who become your enemies (bad enough) but your friends and family (there are people in the auto industry who recall the horrifying moment when Japanese cars started showing up in Grosse Pointe).

And yet, even though resistance is futile, there is still a great deal of money at stake—and a great deal of money that can be spent on futile resistance. There are large legal departments working into the night, angry executives shouting “Do something!,” PR firms hotly bidding for the business (this has now, as a meta–media joke, made it onto the HBO show K Street, in which James Carville and Mary Matalin’s firm hopes to win some anti-piracy business), and lots of soldierly righteousness (“There is no issue in my life I take as seriously as this,” said News Corp.’s Peter Chernin the other day) standing in the way of everyone’s just admitting defeat. All industries instinctively try to defend themselves from obsolescence—usually at the point when they are already obsolete. Everybody goes a little crazy and shoots in all directions when they realize they’re about to lose their monopoly.

Of course, monopolies are always lost. Destructive competition always arises. The development of new technologies always screws somebody over in the end. And, relatively speaking, this is progress.

So I want to leap not too far into the future and imagine a world—after we finish suing people who are not relatives of media moguls—in which we accept the fundamental peer-to-peer exchangeability of digital media and attempt to turn lemons into lemonade.

Here’s the main point (which the entertainment industry is incapable of understanding or intent on obscuring): Music and movies and the act of distributing and selling music and movies are different things.

A middleman is always in a difficult position when it comes to defending the primacy of his middleness. So the entertainment industry has made the calculated moral leap of speaking not just for the distribution chain of command but for the integrity of musicians and filmmakers (which, to most actual musicians and filmmakers, is so extraordinarily shameless and Orwellian that many find themselves reflexively taking the side of the downloaders).

Now, of course, the entertainment industry does not really claim to speak for all artists and all music and movies, but rather for all mega-artists and blockbuster music and movies. If it could strike a deal to let all marginal artists be freely downloaded and to protect all profitable ones, it surely would.

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