August 1, 2003

Is my new portable music player safe to use?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

Portable MP3/Ogg players get better every year. The latest model managing editor Lee Schlesinger and I have received for review is a lovely little piece of engineering and we are happy to share our impressions of it with you. But is this device legal? Will those of us who use it bring the wrath of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) down on our heads like a corporate version of Maxwell's Silver Hammer?

Consider: RIAA-bought legislators are trying to get insane bills like this one made into law. Whether or not they succeed, there are plenty of confusing copyright protection regulations out there already, and the latest tactic the music industry is using in its attempt to slow the death of their obsolete business model is to target individual users, not just commercial CD duplicators or large-scale file-sharing networks.

There seems to be this big RIAA push to outlaw all devices that facilitate file copying. Computer operating systems, for example, all have ways to copy files, and all those new little USB memory devices are certainly handy places to stash files and give you an easy way to move them from one computer to another, even if neither computer is hooked to the Internet or a LAN.

And then there's that MP3/Ogg player. My wife has many years' worth of legally-purchased CDs, and loves the idea of being able to transfer the music on them to a small solid-state device instead of using a portable CD player and lugging stacks of CDs everywhere. But would my Debbie suddenly become a criminal if she started ripping all her CDs?

Apparently not. Yet. It seems the recording industry powers-that-be haven't gotten around to suing customers who transfer music (that they've paid for) from one medium to another to make personal use more convenient. But will this largesse on their part continue? Could my wife be at the beach one day and find herself tossed in the back of a police car if she has music in her possession for which she has no receipt on her person?

(Yes, this is one of those "slippery slope" arguments, and the idea of an innocent music fan getting arrested is as farfetched as the idea of copyright terms getting extended by Congress every time Disney's copyright on Mickey Mouse is due to expire.)

But it looks like the RIAA is now going after music fans who share as few as five songs with friends over the Internet.

What if my wife hands her headphones to a young friend who may not have heard a piece of 'classic rock' she enjoys? What if she shares five songs with ten friends at a party? What if she makes a compilation CD full of MP3 or Ogg Vorbis files for a friend by using a 'copyright circumvention device' like, say, her laptop computer? So far, the nasty old Internet hasn't come into play. But if my wife emails those same files to a few friends, is she suddenly a pirate?

I have given up trying to sort out all this music filesharing stuff. The only 100% safe solution I've come up with is to avoid owning any music whatsoever produced by RIAA member companies. If you look around a little, you can find plenty of interesting pieces, in almost all genres, sold directly by the artists or by small recording companies that aren't trying to make trouble for their customers.

Hopefully you'll take similar steps yourself to eliminate the risk of being arrested by the FBI or other law enforcement agencies that are working to keep the music industry's current business model creaking along for a few more years.

And maybe, just maybe, if we computer users stop owning and sharing music made by RIAA members, law enforcement will have time to go after the most obnoxious music file sharers of all: Those who share their music with everyone in a six-block radius through insanely loud car stereos, even if the recipients of this kind of sharing have no desire to hear the music that is being 'shared' with them.

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