The recent threat from Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), intending to scare Internet music swappers was, at best, foolish, and at worst, an invitation for rebellion. Don’t these people read their history? It may be a bit much to compare the prohibition of peer-to-peer music swapping to the prohibition of alcohol in the Twenties, but at least one basic lesson might have been learned: To attempt to stop what people want and can readily produce will only exacerbate the situation.

Is the RIAA going to follow through with the threat to identify offenders and drag thousands of them into court? Of course not. And do swappers believe they are really at risk? Of course not. The RIAA, now seen as a bunch of greedy whiners in an industry that already exacts exorbitant prices for the most banal productions, have irritated cyber-pirates the world over. Any effort by the government to intervene will multiply the problem, as happened with the temporary death of Napster, now bigger and better in the forms of Morpheus, Grokster, and Kazaa. If the authorities get tough, or even kill Napster’s successors, new techno-babies will be born. Under the heavy hand of the courts or the corporations or the feds, the swappers will learn to be very covert, to hide their computer addresses, to create fictitious profiles, to produce encoded names for the insiders, and so on (all doable right now). No company would be able to keep up with them; no agency either.

Attempting to change the behavior of music downloaders will not work. We can’t even stop people from killing their own babies, and we’re going to make them feel bad about stealing a little music? Most people involved don’t believe they are stealing; the music’s already on the airwaves, they say — how is this any different?

I have yet to see any solid evidence that music swapping has a significant impact on sales. It may be a convenient excuse to cover all kinds of ills in the music industry, such as the prevalence of mediocre artists whose talents are overrated. But even if it is hurting sales, there’s no stopping the swapping.

So is there a solution? An old adage will suffice: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The music industry should work with the peer-to-peer folks, building in incentives for people to buy what they are downloading. Many downloaders like the packaging that comes with the music, so it needn’t be a hard sell. (I once had a taped recording of Brian Eno’s Before and After Science, and later went out to buy the album when I heard it came with ready-for-framing art prints.)

If I were in the music industry, I would form alliances with the peer-to-peer businesses and, for example, start counting how many times swappers download new releases. Not to spy on them, but to sell to them. If they reach a certain number of downloads, they earn coupons to buy CD’s at a discount. That would drive them to the stores (on-line or traditional) and other sales would result.

The music industry needs to be ahead of the technology, not behind it. It should prepare itself for the inevitable, the day when music (and film) is digitally on-demand. Already I can sample my DVD’s via Netflix; why not the same with CD’s? And how long will it be before I can forget the disc altogether and listen to CD’s via web jukeboxes?

Bottom line: The RIAA and others in the entertainment world need to get over themselves and start rethinking their business models. If they don’t, some innovative, young Grokster will.

”’A. M. Siriano AMSiriano.com is with the Frontiers for Freedom based in Washington DC and can be reached at:”’ mailto:siriano@amsiriano.com

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