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The Therapy Sessions
Thursday, September 02, 2004

Collapsing copyrights

About nine months ago, XM Satellite Radio came out with XMPCR (interesting that it shares part of its acronym with the Polymerase Chain Reaction), a little gadget that played satellite radio through a computer. The signals were received via the device's antenna, and the stations played through the computer's speakers (the internet was not involved).

I thought this device was a waste of time, and I did not think it was worth the fifty bucks or so one would have cost me.


Those little devices have now been pulled from the market by XM, and the ones out there are being auctioned on E-Bay for $350.

It seems somebody invented a software program called TimeTraxx. TimeTraxx took each song that XM broadcast and converted it to a reasonable quality MP3, complete with song title and artist name. The software and XMPCR can work continuously: leave it playing for a few weeks, and a person could theoretically get many terabytes of free music in an MP3 format that could be easily traded or sold. The only limitation was the amount of memory you had to store such things.

The RIAA was apolectic. I think they put the screws to XM. Despite their denials, I think it's likely they told XM to pull XMPCR off the market, or the RIAA would stop licensing XM to play any music the RIAA controlled.

Heavy handed but very effective. The RIAA is on firm ground here: this device and software was the nuclear weapon of music piracy.

In the long term,though, the RIAA is fighting a losing battle.

People who are downloading music and sending it out to the world are stealing, pure and simple. The fact that this is even questioned by a large percentage of the populace is evidence of how far we have drifted from respecting the concept of intellectual property. We have allowed this important concept to become suspect, and our society may one day pay a terrible price because we do not understand the idea of a copyright.

Make no mistake: I am no friend of the RIAA. The industry they represent has become fat and lazy. It exploits most artists, and pays them a pittance so its executives and producers can live in splendor. They attempt to control music - promoting lameass shit while worthy bands struggle to get their music out (the internet is these bands' best friend). Their prices are ridiculous: $16.99 for twelve songs when you only want to buy three? Scandalous.

But that is their right, because that is their property. The person who claims he is entitled to someone else's work is, in my mind, no better than the Democrat who wants to steal from the rich so that he can "help" the poor (and take credit for it).

But as I said, the RIAA is dead. American teenagers believe that filling an MP3 player with music should cost nothing, and since they buy the most music, the industry will need a new business model. And it will be one that will make them a lot less money than they make currently.

This lack of respect for other's property will have serious ramifications outside the entertainment industry.

For example, I have supported the idea of reimporting medications from other countries for quite some time. I have, up until now, viewed this as a "free trade" issue. I also have a suspicion that it will torpedo many of tightly controlled pharmaceutical markets of our trading partners (a real plus for my libertarian side). Countries will be unable to set prices for drugs within their borders, and pharmaceuticals will assume a global price, just like any other commodity.

But what then?

Like music, many people feel they have a "right" to the latest and most expensive drugs, free of charge. These views are especially prevalent in Europe (where else?). I suppose they also believe money grows on trees.

Here's a nightmare scenario: the quasi-socialist countries of Europe begin cancelling patents and allowing generics to move in and start making drugs practically as soon as they hit the market. Sure, the WTO would go bananas. Sure, the US (where most pharmaceutical companies do their research) would impose sanctions. So?

Eventually, there would be pressure (from the truly clueless) for the US to begin importing these generic drugs as well. You think the principled opposition to this would stay united? I doubt it. A few 527 ads showing "Bill" suffering from AIDS, unable to afford domestic patent Crixivan, wanting only the "right" to buy incredibly cheap generic Crixivan from France, would do the trick in a heartbeat.

The whole pharmaceutical industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people, would be in big trouble. The same could happen to software and other industries. Technology and development would stagnate worldwide.

This is a serious problem. Intellectual property is a serious issue that is not getting sufficient coverage in the press. It is the reason our world has wealth at all.

We ignore the rights of inventors - or musicians - at our peril.

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