Networker: I want my MP3

Issue 

Networker: I want my MP3

"I want my MP3" is allegedly the cry of consumption maddened, music-loving teenagers in Japan. For internet marketeers, this is the stuff of fantasies — a commercial purpose for the internet.

For those who have missed the hype, MP3 is the term used to describe the format for delivering music over the internet. You can log on to many sites, such as MP3.com (<http://www.MP3.com>), and download a range of tracks for free or a fee.

MP3 is an offshoot of a set of "MPEG" standards developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s for sending picture and sound over networks. This was a long time before the internet's World Wide Web came into existence.

On a computer, a picture or sounds are stored as a file. These files can take up large amounts of space unless they are reduced in size by compression. MPEG and MP3 are simply standards for reducing the size of files.

Most compression methods for dealing with picture or sound files remove some of the detail of the original. The smaller the resulting file, in general, the more detail has been removed.

The first thing to note about music sent using MP3 is that it is poorer quality compared to a CD. This hardly matters for someone playing a tune on a computer (with its extremely limited speakers). But it means that the vision of music collectors in the future downloading their new music from MP3 sites is not likely to occur.

MP3 is more in the realm of tunes recorded from a radio transmission on a cassette recorder. But there is an important difference. Radio stations have an arrangement to pay fees for the music they play. The internet lacks this. This is currently a rich field for copyright lawyers.

On April 23, a US federal judge ruled in favour of the major music corporations against MP3.com. The company had established a business of selling music to individuals and storing it for them, so that whenever they called in they could hear "their" tracks. Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that MP3.com did not have the right to store the music on its customers' behalf.

The internet industry went into shock. MP3.com shares dropped 42% to around US$7 each (at their peak they had traded at $105).

For all the noise, most of the "new" internet "business models" are just another way to delivering existing products. For example, both the transistor radio and the portable cassette player transformed the way that people could hear music wherever they were. MP3 provides no equivalent breakthrough.

Not surprisingly, the "old" companies are fighting back, especially through the courts. The music corporations are trying to tighten copyright laws to deal with the internet (not a good thing), and the internet profiteers are having to go back to the drawing board.

BY GREG HARRIS

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