<TABLE width=478><TBODY><TR><TD>Saturday, February 3, 2007
By PETER GRAD
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So this is the current state of digital music sales:
You can listen for free to any of 3 million songs at Napster.com, one of several popular online digital music sites. But you can play the same song only five times. If you want to listen to it an unlimited number of times, you must become a Napster "subscriber."
That costs $10 a month. You can then listen to songs on your computer, but you can't transfer them to an MP3 player. And though you can listen to these songs as many times as you wish, you can do so only as long as you are a subscriber.
If you stop paying your $10 monthly fee, the songs will be locked, and your access will vanish.
If you want to untether yourself from your computer and transfer the songs to a portable player, you'll need to subscribe to a different plan, Napster to Go, and that'll set you back $15 a month.
Rules and more rules
But if you stop paying your To Go fee, just as in the above scenario, you'll forfeit your right to listen to the songs any longer.
If you want to just play the darn songs whenever you feel like it and without being chained to a lifelong contract, you must pay the subscription fees and then purchase each song for 99 cents, or slightly less if you buy them in bulk.
You can at last "own" the song and play it to your heart's content ... er, that is, as long as you have an "authorized" MP3 player.
Sorry, if you happen to own the No. 1 player on the market, the iPod, you're out of luck. It's not "authorized."
And Napster.com is one of the better deals around.
The digital music scene is a mess. In part, it's because the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) does not want to lift its tentacles on a lucrative business model that it and its corporate cohorts have enjoyed for so many decades.
The 'crime' of sharing
Part of the problem is that in an attempt to corral thieves who copy digital songs and sell them, the industry instead winds up targeting kids whose "crime" is to copy songs and share them with others.
At the dawn of the digital music age a decade ago, the RIAA sought to block one of the very first MP3 players, claiming it would violate copyright law. It fought the advent of cassette tapes. It fought the first video cassette player, the Betamax. It tried to get Verizon to disclose names of customers who shared songs online.
It is now suing thousands of teenagers and adults, including a 12-year-old girl and a grandmother who had died six months earlier, because each had downloaded songs from file-sharing services.
Listen, artists should get paid for their work. And if digital "pirates" are copying songs and profiting from illicit sales, or if there is a site involved in the massive distribution of artists' works without payments to them, it should be halted. Musicians are being victimized by corporate greed and Web leeches.
But I'm not clear how the crackdown on kids -- or adults -- sharing music online is justified. Sharing music isn't new. Courts have never ruled against an individual's right to share music or videotapes with friends and family.
Digital Rights Management tools, with restrictions that vary from service to service, mean that the big music companies can control how many times you play a song, what computer or device you can play it on, and when your "right" to listen to that song expires.
Could you imagine buying your first Beach Boys album, as I did back in the '60s, and being told you can listen to "I Get Around" on record players made only by Kenwood, and that you must pay a monthly fee to keep listening to the song?
Yet the music industry is operating on the principle that it can continue to do just that.
As a result, we have a jumble of rules and restrictions among sites such as Napster, Rhapsody and iTunes.
No wonder people are turning to alternate sites such as allofmp3.com, the notorious Russian site where you can select songs -- unencumbered by digital copyright crippleware -- from its enormous catalog for about 15 cents apiece. The RIAA, unsurprisingly, says allofmp3 is illegal and has filed a suit in a New York court to halt its operation. The operators of the site insist they have been operating legally within Russian law for years.
If they are breaking the law, they should be shut down. If they are not, the RIAA would do well to examine their model of uncompromised music -- no restrictions whatsoever -- at affordable prices, with guarantees of payments to artists.
In other words, it's time for the RIAA to face the music, cut the cost of songs, dump Digital Rights Management, give musicians their fair share and let music fans listen to music where, how and when they want to. Period.