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Can't Kill P2P

By Annalee Newitz

THERE IS THIS GREAT, whiny song by Ozzy Osbourne from back in the day—before the TV show and all that crap—where he screams, "You can't kill rock & roll; it's here to staaaaaay!" Although remarkable for its cheesy sincerity, Ozzy's song was just one of many with similar sentiments back in the late 20th century.

By then, it was pretty damn obvious that rock couldn't be stopped, despite the efforts of Tipper Gore and Christian evangelists. Yet clearly Ozzy still felt sort of threatened, or at least besieged enough that he needed to pen yet another paean to the juggernaut of metal, the world's most dangerous musical genre (later surpassed by rap).

I'm starting to feel like Ozzy. I want to yowl about peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software, a geeky topic that I think Ozzy—with his reputation for biting the heads off bats—would appreciate. Like rock & roll, P2P is not going to die—despite hype storms to the contrary.

BigChampagne, a company that charts the usage of P2P networks, reported in June that 9.9 million people are using P2P networks simultaneously at any given time. That's a 20.1 percent jump from last year. And it's double the numbers from September 2003. The recent Supreme Court decision in MGM vs. Grokster will leave some P2P companies open to lawsuits, and yet those companies are still holding their digital swap meets where people trade files online.

The MPAA and RIAA brought several thousand lawsuits against individual file-sharers over the past year, but people are still flocking to BitTorrent, Kazaa, eMule and all the other glorious free networks designed to facilitate quick information-sharing across the planet. The entertainment industry, whose representatives have tiresomely insisted that their profits are being ruined by P2P, aren't really doing that badly after all. The film industry says DVD sales grew 33 percent in 2004. And in an extensive research report, The Economist concludes that music sales grew by a few percentage points in 2004, too.

Now, here's the really interesting thing: the wackily named International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), an international version of the RIAA, said in a recent bulletin, "Music fans downloaded well over 200 million tracks in 2004 in the United States and Europe—up from about 20 million in 2003." These were legally purchased tracks, by the way. So if we assume the same amount of growth in legal downloading this year as last year, I think it's safe to say that most of those 9.9 million people who are on P2P networks at any given time are buying shitloads of lame new albums from major record labels.

Indeed, they are: Internet industry analysts at Jupiter Research said earlier this month that the digital music industry is currently worth $350 million and expanding rapidly. Amusingly, $200 million of that revenue is from ringtones alone. Now what does that tell us? That people are so desperate to download music online that they'll buy anything—even stupid ringtones—if it's easily gotten in sufficient variety.

Similarly, as soon as record companies made their music available online, via P2P networks or in stores like iTunes or Yahoo! Music, people started buying it like crazy. Maybe the popularity of P2P networks isn't about people wanting to "steal music," as the RIAA would like you to think, maybe it's just about people not wanting to go to scabby old Tower Records for their music. Maybe it's just that people want to get their music online, and currently P2P is the best way to get it—not because it's free, but because it's there.

Finally, some bigwigs in the music industry are starting to get it. This month, Sony BMG announced it had made a deal with British ISP PlayLouder to make its entire music catalog available to anyone who is a PlayLouder customer. That means anyone with a PlayLouder account can download any Sony BMG song, in any format, from any P2P network, perfectly legally. Doesn't that sound civilized? Imagine if anyone who had an Earthlink account could use BitTorrent for legal downloads of every Bruce Springsteen CD—even if they hadn't already purchased the CDs. What Sony BMG is saying is that P2P is the new radio. People are using P2P to listen to music all day, discover new artists and (yes) tape their favorite stuff to hear later. All these things will lead to bigger sales for Sony BMG.

And yet, just last fall, a group of 47 state attorneys general wrote an open letter to the P2P industry, urging it to "take direct and meaningful action" because most P2P networks are used for child pornography and crime. Here we are, almost 30 years after Ozzy's anthem shook my little ghetto blaster, and we're still being pummeled by lawmakers and hypocritical authority figures because of all the supposedly scary things wrought by youth music culture. But I got news for you. You can't kill P2P—it's here to staaaaaay!

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) notes that in 25 years P2P may be utterly sold out and starring in its own cutsey reality TV show, so don't say she didn't warn you.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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