The Battle of the Net wages on.
The music industry, having previously targeted webmasters who offer unreleased,
downloadable material on their sites, has fired its latest protective
salvo in the ongoing Internet war between fans and record companies, this
time picking a new target -- the tape trader.
The particular trader in this case was a Bruce Springsteen fan who, at a
website hosted by Temple University, offered to copy unreleased
Springsteen concert recordings in return for $6 to cover the cost of blank
tapes and postage. In late December, the Recording Industry Association of
America -- a trade association that represents the six major record
companies and their subsidiaries -- ordered the school to remove the site,
which it did immediately.
According to Frank Creighton, the RIAA's vice president and associate
director for anti-piracy, the fact that the Temple trader offered his
collection on the Net was particularly disturbing.
"You're talking about the sound recording being offered to thousands, or
hundreds of thousands, or millions of people," Creighton said. "That
clearly goes beyond two next-door neighbors trading tapes because they're
fans of a particular band. It's getting much closer to that fine line
between commercial and non-commercial distribution for these sound
When it comes to the rapidly exploding world of music on the Net, it's
sometimes hard to discern who is running more scared: A music industry
fearful of losing money through copyright violations, or music fans, who in
the promotion of their favorite artists have become fearful of incurring
the wrath of record companies.
Because the Net remains a relatively uncharted landscape, neither party has
fully sized-up the other yet, and to the casual observer, it might be difficult
paint one as David and the other Goliath. That, however, hasn't stopped
either side from claiming barraged underdog status for itself.
In tape-trading circles, the impact of the recent RIAA order was felt immediately
as fans rushed to post news of the bust on bootleg newsgroups. "The day
that the [RIAA] letter came, my list [of concerts] came off my website,"
said Flynn McLean, a 26-year-old Springsteen trader from Wheaton, Md., who
claimed to be a friend of the Temple trader. "I'm not offering any trades
on my site any more."
The recent action capped off an active year of Net-watching by the RIAA.
Earlier in December, the organization sent cease and desist letters to
several web hosts whose customers had posted audio files from the upcoming
Yield album by Pearl Jam on the websites. In June, the RIAA filed
lawsuits against the owners of three "archive sites," which hosted full-length,
audio recordings by dozens of artists.
And while trading may have now raised more controversy for the industry,
the practice of taping and exchanging concert recordings has taken place
outside of cyberspace for decades. Typically, fans trade one concert for
another, or if
one trader has no concert to offer, two blank tapes for each concert tape.
Veteran traders with massive collections, like the Temple-based Springsteen fan,
often offer to trade for cash as a convenience to new traders, or "newbies."
Posting lists of tapes for trade on the Internet moves the hobby -- which
traditionally took place among collectors on a one-on-one basis, or through
classified ads in relatively small fanzines -- into a much larger realm.
Dave Asselin, 27, of Boston said explicitly on his concert tape
website that he doesn't trade in any fashion, be it concert-for-concert,
two-for-one or for money. Privately, however, he explained that in four
years he's built a collection of more than 400 unreleased Smashing Pumpkins
audio and video tapes.
Although Asselin calls the recent action by the RIAA "silly chest-puffing,"
he said he has witnessed its effects. "I can't even tell you how many
people they've scared into hiding their lists or pulling them off the Web,
which is exactly what they want to do. Fifteen or 20 people that I trade
with have pulled their pages off or changed the location."
The RIAA is more interested in halting transactions where money is exchanged for
recordings than traditional concert-for-concert trades, Creighton said.
"We do look into those situations. Typically in those situations what we like
to do is talk to our member companies about it, as well as the artists
themselves, to get a flavor for how concerned they are about those situations,"
he said. "In some cases, we might send a warning letter as opposed to a
strongly worded cease and desist letter. But don't let that confuse anybody --
the trading of the tapes would be considered technically illegal."
Although McLean said he has no intention of stopping his own trades, he
predicted that the RIAA warning will have a chilling effect that will be
felt most by newcomers looking to get into tape-trading. "I already have
the friends who I know and I've traded with before," he said. "The main
effect is that people are not going to be as willing to trade with newbies."
But in Asselin's view, the RIAA is grasping at straws. He called their
tactics "irrelevant" in the grassroots territory of cyberspace.
"The Internet changes the rules," he said. "They can't go out and bust a
distributor and cut off the supply of [bootleg] CDs or LPs to a large part
of the world. So they're trying to scare people into not trading this way.
But this is just temporary. People will forget all about this." [Wed., Jan. 14, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]