Which student is a music pirate?

These days, file-sharing has seemed to become a huge point of contention, sprawling itself across the headlines of major news outlets and even prompting the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to play in theaters a commercial denouncing the download of movie files.

The stream of court cases seems endless, and the story of the 12-year-old girl sued for downloading copyrighted material has become common knowledge. More suits are filed on both sides, with one of the most important being Sharman Networks’ (owner of popular file-sharing program Kazaa) suit against major labels and Hollywood studios.

Sharman had a major victory in this case when Los Angeles judge Stephen Wilson declared that the suit could proceed, despite the entertainment industry’s request that the case be dismissed.

The software developers accuse the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and MPAA of “anti-competitive behavior and unfair business practices” in their attempts to stop the sharing of copyrighted materials on Sharman’s peer to peer software, Kazaa. Allegedly, the RIAA used Kazaa software to spy on the contents of other users’ shared folders and distribute corrupted files into the network.

If you’re a Kazaa user, you might remember these as the seemingly legitimate mp3s that contain the same five seconds of a song over and over, or sometimes just squalling digital feedback. Additionally, Sharman’s suit claims that the industry plaintiffs hacked into users’ computers to check for copyrighted material, and used Kazaa’s built-in instant messaging service to threaten suspected infringers.

These countermeasures may seem extreme to some, but the RIAA has expanded its traditional definition of piracy from the more traditional methods of bootlegging and distribution of unauthorized music to include the transfer of music files, even without intent to manufacture or distribute. The media group is serious about enforcement of their policies, as evidenced by their recent hiring of the Ashcroft-endorsed director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bradley Buckles.

The music industry’s war against file-sharing is nothing new, however. As you may well remember, back in 1999 a program called Napster was released. It allowed people to share music files with other users of the software. What made it revolutionary was the fact that the files were stored on the hard disks of the program users, not on a central server.

Napster’s popularity was huge, with up to 60 million using the software at its peak. Naturally, much of the music being shared was copyrighted by major labels, and Napster was sued by the RIAA in December 1999.

Metal giants Metallica also joined in, leveling their own highly publicized suit against the sharing software. The legal pressure caused Napster to virtually shut down by early 2001. Despite this victory, the floodgates for peer to peer sharing had been opened. Months after the suit was brought against Napster, Gnutella was released. Although its developer withdrew support for the program after a relatively short time, the code was used to create numerous other file-sharing programs, the two most popular being Morpheus and Kazaa.

Today, Kazaa is one of the most downloaded programs on the Internet and boasts integrated virus protection and a network of users numbering in the hundreds of millions, which means that there are plenty of opportunities for copyright infringement. The RIAA plans to counter this with lawsuits against individual users, which it hopes will send the message that they plan to stem the tide of copyrighted digital media.

The RIAA’s website outlines their stance against piracy, online and otherwise, and asserts, “The pirate’s credo is still the same: Why pay for it when it’s so easy to steal?”

According to RIAA figures, 2002 saw an 8.9 percent decrease in CD unit shipments, which were in large part attributed by RIAA president Hilary Rosen, to music piracy and CD copying. The entertainment group warns consumers to be wary of record labels “you’ve never heard of” and CD-Rs as potential red flags for piracy.

This stance, however, has angered many, who point out that labels “you’ve never heard of” are often independent labels, who have been known to release material in CD-R format. Also, reissues of older, rare material are commonly on the cheap and versatile CD-R, as it keeps recording costs down and allows small labels without the distribution power of a larger indie or major label to still remain effective.

IT experts, musicians, and many others have challenged the RIAA’s claim that online piracy was making a huge impact on the industry’s sales, and disapprove of the lawsuit scare tactics, which they see as violating users’ privacy and labeling an increasingly large percentage of the population as criminals, alienating potential buyers and stirring up a wash of anti-industry sentiment. They also point out discrepancies between the RIAA’s own statements on decreased sales and the data that the association itself provides.

While the number of CD “units moved” has decreased since 2000, so has the amount of new CDs being released, and the number of new artists being signed by the labels. The current economic slump has also affected sales. When all of these factors are combined, it would seem, based on RIAA’s own data indicating that label profits have actually been increasing relative to the economic condition. Additionally, movie, DVD and video game sales have increased, with DVDs experiencing an incredible 41.3 percent growth from 2001 to 2002. Movies and video games are all available for download on Kazaa networks. Others credit a slump in CD sales to the rising cost of the glistening discs.

Many artists, such as Steve Albini and Courtney Love, have pointed out that most major label deals net musicians cents on the dollar, with 13 percent being a typical figure, less a 10 percent packaging deduction.

By this rationale, it would appear that the major victims of p2p music downloading are the labels themselves, not the artists to whom p2p technology can offer access to huge global audiences. Some IT experts suggest that the industry must learn to work with the new technology or face extinction. These questions have seriously undermined the RIAA’s case in the eyes of many.

Nevertheless, the RIAA intends to continue its prosecution of illegal downloaders as pirates, and hopes its lawsuits will convey the message to p2p users that there are serious consequences for their actions. Whether or not this tactic will be effective is yet to be seen, but it is certain that the Sharman v. Entertainment Industry case will have a huge impact on the future of file-sharing, and could change the way people listen to music forever.