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NS Internet Column

Remember "Home Taping is Killing Music. And itís illegal"? It is a slogan now about as credible as those doctorsí testimonials to the health-giving powers of cigarette brands in the Thirties, yet in the late Seventies, the recording industry was terrified that people who might be buying LPs, as they then were, would instead make tapes and enjoy the music without paying for it.

Now the tune is being played again, in the American courts, where RIAA, the trade body that represents the giant music corporations such as Sony and Time-Warner, has just failed in an attempt to stop the sale of the Diamond Rio, a sort of digital walkman. But instead of using tapes or disks, the widget which threatens civilisation uses flash memory cards, similar to those used by digital cameras to store their pictures.

Music files are normally huge: a normal CD is digital but takes up about 650MB for an hour of music. What frightens the RIAA is that the Diamond Rio uses a compression scheme called MP3 to squeeze these files down to around a tenth of the CD size, without most listeners being able to hear any difference. Certainly a good MP3 file sounds better than a cheap CD walkman; and it costs virtually nothing. Fifty minutes of music, took me an hour and a half to download on last Sunday morning, which will have put about 80p on my phone bill.

MP3 is not the only way to squeeze music down phone lines and into computers. There are other methods that are simpler, or provide higher quality, and some of these are being pushed by the record companies. But that is because they can be fixed to make them difficult to copy. If you download a RealAudio sample from Bob Dylanís web site, for example, it is gone once it has been played. There is no way to save it to disk and play it again without connecting to the site again. This suits Sony, for obvious reasons.

But MP3 files cannot be copy protected like that. They are reasonably simple to make from ordinary music CDs, and, once made, they can be duplicated as easily as any other computer files. So most of the tens of thousands of files available in this format are illegal. They are the digital equivalent of the home cassette tapes that everyone makes.

So why is the recording industry so worried? Itís not as if home taping has killed music off yet. No one makes money out of the MP3 trade at the moment. One answer is the extraordinary fractionating quality of the Internet: the way it makes it possible to distil out smaller and smaller groups from the population and put them into contact with each other. This is most obvious with lunatics and sex maniacs. But it works just as well with academics studying Anglo-Saxon, or semi-sane obsessives like devotees of the Grateful Dead.

The Web is a fantastic breeding ground for crazes and obsessions, which means that anything that catches on there will spread with enormous speed. One leading MP3 site had 2.5 million visitors in the month of September, and a fair number of these will have been in search of bootleg material. This certainly doesnít represent 2.5m legitimate CDs unsold, in the way that 2.5m orders for CDs from a dodgy pressing plant in China might do. But it does represent a sudden tidal wave of fashion, one that has been noticed even by the online porn industry: one disgruntled Deadhead was complaining on recently that some porn sites are stuffing their pages with invisible texts containing the words "MP3" and "Grateful Dead" to mislead search engines like Yahoo.

So there is always a chance that this could turn into a market that might kill such things as the trade in reissuing old LPs on CD, if simple market saturation doesnít do the job first. Yet I think the real explanation must be more subtle. After all, it is already easy to buy drives that fit a personal computer and copy audio CDs perfectly, yet the recording industry makes no fuss about that. But such drives are fussy and unfashionable. They require work. Music on a smart card might become the most fashionable delivery system; that should frighten the industry far more than if it is only the cheapest.

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