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The Gift Of Music

Our friends at The NPD Group this week released a study pointing out that downloading video from free peer-to-peer (P2P) services is outpacing downloads from authorized pay sites by five-to-one. The report coincides with this week’s settlement of lawsuits against Sony BMG over the company’s decision to include in its digital rights management (DRM) software, a program that secretly planted a rootkit — essentially a spyware virus — in the hard drive of any PC that played certain music CDs by Sony labels, leaving that hard drive vulnerable to hackers — and Sony marketing people.

The lengths that consumers go to gather content to fill their endlessly enlarging hard drives are being far outpaced by the lengths the record companies and movie studios are going to protect their copyrights on that content. But sending in teams of engineers and lawyers to outpace technology is a losing battle unless they can shut down the Internet completely. For every new technology rolled out, there will be hackers hacking it. For every Web site shut down, more will arise. The digital era will ultimately redefine what copyrights are and what fair use really means.

In the meantime, I buy CDs. Lots of them. It’s my weakness. And if you think that makes me a Luddite, consider this: The very first thing I do when I buy a CD is rip it to my hard drive. I own an iPod, which makes my daily commute to New York and back bearable. I also listen to music on my hard drive at work. I also share most of that music with my friends and they share music with me.

My wife Danielle drew her brother Mike in our family’s annual secret Santa pool. Mike is a passionate music fan, and he also happens to spend about a third of his working life in airports and on airplanes, but he has zero interest in technology. Danielle decided to buy him an iPod and preload it with “a ton” of music from our collection. Mike would certainly enjoy using an iPod, but only if he didn’t have to maintain it. Plus, knowing that the three of us have very similar taste in music, perhaps we’d turn him on to some artists he hadn’t previously heard.

Of course, the task of choosing which iPod to get him, choosing what music to put on it and exactly how to accomplish this fell to the consumer electronics editor in the house.

A few Google searches, some moving around of folders on my hard drive and one long overnight copying session later, Mike had a 30GB iPod loaded with about 2,500 songs from my music collection. Much of it he already owned in vinyl or CD form. Some of it was new to him. And I felt not one twinge of concern or guilt about copying my music for Mike.

Because I know first-hand that as a direct result of giving Mike that music he will undoubtedly seek out more music from some of those artists. And once he becomes more familiar with some of that music, he may be inspired enough to buy a ticket and see that artist perform live. He may even like that show enough to buy a t-shirt. And while he’s at that show, he may really enjoy the set of the opening act, with which he had been previously unfamiliar. That may prompt him to go out and buy that act’s CD. The next step? He’ll loan me that CD so I can rip it. And I’ll share that music with my friends.

Someday maybe the studios will embrace the idea that music is viral, and the more their music is spread, the more potential fan bases are being created — fan bases that ultimately support the artists and the studios with their wallets. Instead, they call their customers pirates and threaten them with lawsuits.

And I keep buying their CDs. I’m not sure which is worse.