Downloading music from the Internet has recently been a hot topic in the media, thanks to a recent American court ruling. Phil Crawley brings the whole thing into Christian perspective.

Shawn Fanning
Shawn Fanning

In case you hadn't noticed there is something happening in the distribution of musical recordings that flies in the face of the traditional model. Until last year the way a band got a recording out to a lot of people was with the help of Mr Sony or some other large record company. From signing the band to recording, promotion and distributing the silver discs, the whole business of music was just that - business. To a greater or lesser degree this was almost universally true, but now things are different and (what a surprise) the Internet is instrumental in it all. MP3 is a way of turning the digital recordings on a CD (or DAT tape or any other recording medium) into smaller-than-you'd-expect files on your computer. Only today I noticed a message on a website where someone was enthusiastically going on about an "unknown" Christian band called 3 Second Memory - so, straight over to their website where I found some of their songs as MP3 format files for download - half an hour latter and I've got four new tunes that I can listen to on my PC, copy into my portable MP3 player (death knell for the Walkman) or burn onto a recordable CD. Merely by word of mouth I've been able to connect with this band, listen to their music (which is far too good for Radio One to ever play) and all without the aid of a record company, A&R man or corporate bean counter.

All very good you might think - the musical playing field finally laid flat with musicians gaining exposure based entirely on their own music efforts and how much their fans rave about them. However, there is a fly in this brave new ointment - musical piracy. For every original song that has been placed on a website by the people who wrote it and who are more than happy for folks to download it there are a thousand copies of Britney Aguilera's (!) latest three minute offering sitting on file-sharing services - the best known of these is Napster and if you are looking for ANY copyrighted recording you can find it - most albums are available before they are released and if you were so inclined you need never buy a CD again.

Isn't this all a bit dodgy?
It would seem that the case for Napster and the whole MP3 debate is quite clear for Bible believers. We love Scriptures that instruct us and so long as legislation doesn't conflict with God's instructions we should in all good conscience submit ourselves to those laws. It just so happens that one of those laws prohibits the copying of copyright musical recordings. I think that by and large it is that clear cut, but it is worth looking at the "edges" of the issue to see if there is anything that can be thrown in from the Christian perspective.

The principle of copyright dates back as far as the ancient Greeks who had enshrined in law the idea that if someone produced something that wasn't as tangible as a nicely made chair or side of beef they were still entitled to protection from theft. Playwrights, writers and musicians were the first beneficiaries of this principle that remains with us to this day and in the UK is carried in the Copyright Designs and Patent Act of 1988. The act is very specific in relation to musical recordings and mentions "electronic storage systems" as a prohibited copying medium. The other side of the issue is that are we as Christians seeking to honour the people whose music we choose to listen to? The labourer is worth his wage, especially if he performed or wrote that cracking middle-eight you enjoy so much.

At this point I should point out that although I'm a huge fan of Napster, carry an MP3 player most days and constantly scour the Internet for new sounds, there is a reasonable "third way" where you can live at peace with what you believe and still be into the electronic distribution of music.

A brief history of Napster
Napster, the villain (or hero) of the piece, started as the brainchild of 18 year old Shawn Fanning. He wanted a way of using the Internet to share digital music stored on his PC with like minded individuals. To do this over anything other than your work or college network implies using the Internet and until broadband becomes a reality (ie, when most of us aren't using the Victorian technology of telephone lines to send computer data) you have to employ a compression system to lessen the huge amount of data used by hi-fi quality musical recordings. Anyhow, Shawn wrote a rather neat piece of software that allowed people to "share" the MP3 files on their computers' hard-drives with anybody else who was logged on to his server. This is the clever bit - the Napster server doesn't store any of the music, it just maintains a database of people who are logged on and what files they are sharing - no copyrighted material passes through their servers. Shawn originally started modestly with one PC running the whole system because his interest was in local unsigned bands. Back in the summer of '99 it all seemed quite innocuous, but the whole 'Metallica' question and 50 million users were on the horizon!

Corporate America fights back!
Along with Eminem, Puff Daddy and Lars Ulricht of Metallica there are lots of big industry concerns over Napster. The RIAA (the American music industry's association) started legal proceedings at the end of 1999 claiming that Napster was "a business...built on piracy." The case was won by the RIAA in July and this judgement was confirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco as we went to press. Although Napster is unrepentant and still operating it seems even more inevitable that they will be in for a rough ride at the hands of 'bricks and mortar' traditional business despite having struck a deal with Bertlesmann, the parent of music giant BMG. This adds a degree of legitimacy to Napster's arguments and opens the way for a notionally legal way of swapping music online. The exact model has yet to be disclosed, but the idea of 'micro-payments' associated with individual songs seems likely.

Are there any good aspects of this music piracy thing?
Based on my first paragraph it would seem not - keep Romans 13 in mind but listen to what an increasing number of musicians are saying. Thorn Yorke of Radiohead has often made mention of his support for Napster: "The cool thing about Napster is that it...encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do." Like many others he says that it has reintroduced a passion for music in people. You can go online and find out about bands you'd never have a chance of hearing on the radio. Napster's biggest growth in the number of US-based subscribers happened in the third and fourth quarters of 2000 and during the same year domestic sales of CDs rose by 9.6%. American market research group Gartner found that on average people who use Napster at least once a week buy six more CDs a year than their none-MP3contemporaries. It would seem that on the face of it Sony et al are trying to criminalize their most faithful customers!

Getting back to the idea of using Napster as a huge radio station or global 'listening post - I picked up on the song "Red And Dizzy" on CR60s cover CD and spent an age trying to track down its creator the American band CoPilot. I managed to find another one of their tunes online and was even more convinced I wanted to buy the album. Eventually I did catch up with CoPilot's guitarist Russ Fletcher only to learn that they never had a European deal and they'd broken up. Russ very kindly sent me a copy of the album and it is the best bit of low-fi/grunge CCM (with an emphasis on contemporary) I've ever come across. I have a feeling that Russ and the other formers members of CoPilot are more than happy that people can still obtain and listen to their music (and very powerful lyrics). Perhaps the point here is that there are musicians whose ultimate aim is that lots of people hear what they are doing. A quick straw poll of the people I know who use Napster show that they follow the trend mentioned earlier of being the biggest consumers of purchased music as well as seeing bands live.

Could the music industry turn MP3 around to their advantage?
One of the key issues used in Napster's defence is referred to as the 'Sony BetaMax' argument. At the start of the '80s the television and film industry held home VCRs in the same regard as the music industry holds Napster today. At the time the Supreme Court upheld Sony's right to manufacture and sell the machines and blank tapes that allowed people to pirate films and TV shows. Today people are saying that like the sale of blank video and audio tape (90% of the usage of which is reckoned to be technically illegal), Napster can't be held responsible for the use people put their service to.

One interesting discovery I made while researching this article was that the company a friend was working for as long ago as 1996 was developing a compressed music format (based on the earlier MP2 standard) that encoded the users credit card details into every file they bought and downloaded online. Giving copies of the files to a small number of people exposed yourself to possible fraud in the order of pennies or at most pounds but if you had made the file available on a website or a file sharing service like Napster you risked exposing yourself to millions of people using your encoded credit card details to buy more music online. In the end they had to give it up as they couldn't obtain enough funding from the music industry for an idea that would have allowed on-line distribution and yet discouraged piracy. Perhaps it is not too late for the RIAA and their chums to take a radical view and start doing some serious thought about selling music online at the kinds of prices that would encourage people to buy, not just to use Napster!

In conclusion
One thing is certain, the traditional model of distributing music is on the way out. In 10 years it seems unlikely that any of us will be buying our music on small silver discs from a bricks and mortar shop. The record companies would be wise to face up to this and the fact that even if Napster disappears there will be a dozen Napster-esque service waiting in the wings. Commentators on things technical often refer to Killer Applications' - uses of technology that cause people to change the way they do things. The web is often cited as the 'killer app' that got the Internet out of academia. Napster and MP3 have the feeling of the next killer application that will change the way we get and listen to music. As Christians we have a revelation to live up to - but I think you can use Napster and the like to track things down with a clear conscience that you're using it as a global radio station and not to rip off hard working musicians.

Technical stuff
The idea of compressed music being distributed over a huge global computer network may seem daunting. Here are three key ideas that will leave you speaking geek with the best of them.

Digital music?
Until CD was introduced in the early '80s all the music we bought and listened to was analogue - a microphone picked up the tiny vibrations in the air that we perceive as sound and translated them into variations in voltage down a piece of cable - this signal was then recorded onto analogue tape (electrical voltages converted into magnetic-variations on a piece of audio tape) which when played back reverses the whole process but with an amplifier and loudspeaker in place of the original microphone. The only real variation on this theme is a vinyl record where the signal variations get converted into varying densities of the groove. However, if when you make your recording rather than doing all that you rig a computer to measure the signal tens-of-thousands of times a second and keep a record of all those measurements you have a digital recording - LOTS of numbers representing the original signal. So long as you take enough measurements per second and your measuring scheme is fine enough you have a digital representation that is so similar to the original that when converted back into voltages and sent to our amplifier/speaker combo no one can tell the difference. The only downside to all this cleverness is the amount of data we're talking about - approximately two million computer 'bits' per second - you'd not get very much on a floppy disc! Keep this in mind - it's kind of central to the whole MP3 phenomenon.

Computer networks?
The story of the Internet is so often told that it ain't worth repeating it - look up history on Yahoo! - Even now with our very fast modems, ISDN connections and the forthcoming faster technology of ADSL moving these big music files about on the Internet would take the best part of a day for a whole CD - clearly impractical.

Compressed music?
The way data is stored on a music CD is simple - very much the process described above - sounds converted to lots of numbers and stored on a CD. However, in the last ten years people have been investigating digital compression - a way of storing (and by extension moving between people on the Internet) sound recordings in a smaller amount of space. It turns out that if you analyse the way sound works there are lots of redundancies in the information - when you hear a mighty cymbal crash your brain tends to ignore all the other things that are going on and so if you throw all those things away from your digital recording you don't really notice the loss. A decent compression system allows you to define how brutal you want to be and it will attempt to make the best sounding result from the data-rate it has to work with. MP3 is the commonest compression system around and consensus seems to be that at a data rate of 128,000 'bits' per second the resulting music is still almost hi-fi. That represents a compression of about 15 to one (ie, 93% of the original material has been discarded!). At 128kbits you can hear some discrepancies from the original CD (called 'artefacts' in geek-speak) but considering how small your music data is now it is a miracle there is anything there at all. It is very listen-able, definitely better than FM radio, audio cassette, or (in my opinion) vinyl.

Put these together and you have a file format that can be downloaded in minutes rather than hours, and is tiny enough for inclusion in small portable MP3 players. These are starting to become popular and I think will outstrip Walkman sales within a couple of years. They come with software to allow you to 'rip' your own CDs into them, and because they have no moving parts work for ages on battery power. They don't skip if they are shaken, and you don't have to take your valuable CDs around with you to listen to them. There is an increasing amount of spoken content on the internet that is freely available (I encode all my fellowship's sermons as MP3s for download) and since voice is not so critical from a quality point of view you can be even more brutal in - your compression of it - four or fives times more compressed than music (so you thrown away 98% of the original recording!) and the result sound like AM radio. At this rate you can fit 10 or 12 hours of spoken content into a typical MP3 player.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.