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Facing the music

Paran Balakrishnan | September 27, 2003

Brianna Lahara is almost certain to become a famous name in marketing case studies around the world. Earlier this month, the 12-year-old schoolgirl from New York became one of the first music lovers to be subpoenaed for downloading music from the Internet.

Lahara's mother quickly paid a $ 2,000 fine and the young pre-teen who lives in one of New York's poorer residential colonies issued an apology saying that she wouldn't do it again.

Is Lahara a swashbuckling music pirate who deserves to be prosecuted? Or, is she an innocent victim caught in the war between the Recording Industry Association of America and the Son of Napster websites where music is swapped freely? And did the RIAA, which has promised a no-holds-barred campaign against illegal downloads from the Net, purposely pick on a 12-year-old to show how tough it could be?

One way or another, the RIAA is demonstrating that it will carry out its threat to prosecute music lovers who illegally download music from the Net. Earlier this month it sent out a flurry of 261 subpoenas across America. And it doesn't lose a single opportunity to remind the public that this is only the beginning of a blizzard of lawsuits. "It's time to face the music," said one spokesman with a poker face.

Inevitably, the move has provoked a flurry of protest. P2P United, an industry trade group which represents music websites like Gnutella and Grokster, promptly offered to write a cheque that would cover Lahara's fine.

The industry sites like Grokster and Gnutella have been forced onto the backfoot by the RIAA's draconian moves.

P2P United wasn't the only one that came out in support of the 12-year-old. A mix of technology buffs teamed up with outraged civil libertarians.

That's why large corporations around the world are watching the battle between the RIAA and the downloaders. Is it smart salesmanship to sue people who might be potential customers?

"It's obviously a high-risk strategy, because you're suing your own customers," said one American lawyer.

Even more importantly, is this a legitimate way to stop the relentless march of technology? The RIAA isn't an entirely Luddite organisation devoted to halting technology in its tracks.

In private, its members argue that it's high risk legal strategies are aimed at winning time for the recording companies while they figure out new ways of making money in an era when technology makes it possible to download thousands of songs from the Net almost for free.

In fact, as the RIAA heads for courtrooms around America, there are others who are trying to harness technology and win back music lovers legitimately. Apple's iTunes, for instance, has been selling music faster than you can say John Lennon. Apple, which sells for 99 cents a track, didn't have a smooth start in the business.

Nevertheless, it has so far sold about 10 million songs after making its debut in May. That's despite the fact that it has extraordinary limitations: only Mac-users in the United States can access the store. By year-end Apple says it will be offering music to Windows users.

It's far too early to declare Apple a winner in the Internet music wars. But some corporations are clearly eyeing its moves with a watchful eye. This week hardware manufacturer Dell Computers announced that it would be exploring the licensed online music business.

There are other companies like MusicMatch and that are feeling their way in this new business and offering legal, super-cheap downloads. Each one has slightly different business models., for instance, offers unlimited music for about $ 3 a month in the United States. Also watching from the sidelines is Roxio, a software company that boldly bought the Napster name some time ago.

Don't imagine that the music industry is the only one affected by the march of technology. With more powerful computers on their way, it is getting easier to download larger quantities of information. That's why the moguls of the movie industry are also watching intently as the RIAA makes its tough, unpopular moves.

So it looks almost certain that the case against 12-year-old Lahara will be followed with interest around the world.

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