War of the words

The Napster versus recording companies war is being reported as a fight to maintain control over copyright. It isn't. It's a war about who controls content in the future. Them or us. From the earliest days of mass-produced entertainment, either music, books or movies, the major inhibitor to the production of a piece of work has been the cost of getting the thing out to the consumers.

Since Gutenberg made it possible to print lots of copies of a book, those who could afford the machine were the ones who really prospered. The authors have always been given the loose change at the end of the process. When we discovered how to mass-produce music, the performers got very little of the profits. Not until the motion picture industry got into full swing did the actors manage to exert pressure on their masters to grab a bigger slice of the pie. Before that they were on annual salaries.

Mass distribution of entertainment has meant that small change from millions of consumers results in a large box of cash back at head office. And the entire industry is full of people eking out a living from a relatively small number of clever creative people.

Of course, now that we have become so sophisticated at marketing, the creative people may not be actual performers or writers any more.

Napster's novel use of the Internet has opened up a Pandora's box of publishing opportunities that won't go away even if Napster is sued to death. With the advent of low-cost digital storage and replication of nearly every form of mass entertainment, the fight is no longer about who owns what. It's about stopping the great unwashed masses from creating their own entertainment.

The only reason that rock megastars can command the lifestyles they do is because you can't get your music any place else - until now.

Although the current noise is all about stealing tracks from CDs and saving your friends from buying their own copy, the really interesting use of MP3 will be unheard-of artists doing it for themselves. Some of these unknown creators will be very, very good.

But they will no longer have to wait for a multimedia mega-company to discover them. Consumers will discover them. And once the consumers have decided that they are worth reading, watching or listening to, they'll pay for the next book, song or movie.

The artists will get paid directly and probably make as much money as the current stars, because they won't be sharing the profits with anyone else. But if you think any multimedia mega-company is going to lie down and take this, you're dead wrong. They will fight this to the death, because for them that is exactly what it is.

Legions of current stars of the book, music and movie industries will gladly join their ugly distributors in the fight. You don't give up that fantasy lifestyle to some punks with their own Web site without a fight.

A great number of those stars know damn well that they are more the product of slick mar-keting than creative genius. They don't all have a fall-back position of firing up their own Web site and slugging it out with the newbies. Nobody would visit them.

Don't believe me? Take a look at rap music in the US. Those rapsters racked up the highest record sales in the shortest time ever, after being refused airplay on every radio station in the country.

They did it by making their own tapes and CDs and selling them from the back of their panel vans. The difference between now and then is you don't even need a tape deck or a panel van. Just a PC and a modem.

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Ian Yates

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