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MP3 and Me

How I stopped worrying and learned to love online music file-sharing (sort of).

12:00 AM, Oct 16, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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AMONG MY twenty-something peers at The Weekly Standard, I'm thought to be a bit of a premature old fogy. Perhaps it's my stuffed-shirt sartorial choices, my TV preferences (Turner Classic Movies over the WB), or my taste in music (Duke Ellington over Eminem). What can I say? I'm a cranky old man trapped in a 26-year-old's body.

Another sign of this is my reluctance to embrace the world of online music file-sharing. First, let me stipulate that I'm no Luddite: I send e-mail and instant messages all the time, shop on Amazon and eBay, and buy my airline tickets online, too. But until recently, two things kept me from participating in the online music phenomenon. First, I missed the original wave of file-sharing madness (the use among college students of the now-defunct program Napster took off just after I graduated). More important, though, I've always had qualms about not paying an artist for their music, particularly since I was a music major in college.

Lately, however, I've succumbed to temptation. My descent into the world of downloading MP3s began innocently enough. Last spring, I saw the talented young singer Norah Jones perform on television. Bewitched by the fetching and honey-voiced Miss Jones, I bought her album, and also saw her play a concert here in June. (She sounds as good live as she does on the CD.) Jones ended her set with a heartbreaking encore rendition of "The Tennessee Waltz." So a few days later I visited her website and found an MP3 file, available for free, of Jones's performance of "Tennessee Waltz" recorded at an April concert in Chicago. I downloaded it, and got the free iTunes program for my Mac so I could play the song on my computer.

I felt no guilt about this--I'd bought the woman's album and paid to see her perform live, and she was offering the song on her website for free. But then I started to wonder what this MP3 file-sharing stuff was all about, so I downloaded LimeWire, one of the many successors (along with Kazaa and Morpheus) to Napster. Unlike Napster, these new "peer-to-peer" file-sharing programs are decentralized or operate overseas, making them less susceptible to legal challenges from the recording industry (for now, anyway).

My online music experience so far has been a mixed bag. I've acquired about 30 files via LimeWire from something called the Gnutella Network--everything from Mozart to the Beatles, Etta James to George Strait. The MP3 technology itself is unquestionably wonderful, and peer-to-peer file-sharing does offer some real perks: For example, I was able to get the few Stevie Wonder songs I wanted without having to drop $40 on a two-disc set of "greatest hits."

But there are also drawbacks. The availability of songs is dependent upon whether other people simultaneously on the network are sharing the types of music I want. Also, since I haven't yet bothered to get a broadband line, it can take a good 25 minutes to download a three-minute song over my slow-as-molasses modem connection. But even more nagging than these practical obstacles is my old-fogy notion that if I'm going to acquire someone's music, I should be willing to pay them for it. If I want to download "My Cherie Amour," Stevie Wonder should get a cut of whatever price a true market--not a market massively distorted by illegal sharing of copyrighted material--determines the song is worth. (Jonathan Last disagrees with me about the morality of market distortions here.)

FIGURING OUT the rights and wrongs of music file-sharing isn't easy. I've spent the last few weeks trying to decipher things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the international Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and the concept of "fair use" in copyright law. I hesitate to opine on all this for two reasons: one, I'm not a lawyer (praise God); and two, whatever I write is likely to be ground into hamburger by sharp lawyer-bloggers like Glenn Reynolds.