MP3 Summit: MP3 advocates for freedom or profits?

A cyber rights advocate warned the growing Internet, digital music industry that traditional record companies' attempts to control music could end up threatening consumers' freedom of expression.

Speaking Tuesday at the MP3 Summit '99 in San Diego, John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the American cyber rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), tried to rally the 700 or so attendees against the record industry's plans to "bottle" music using a coming standard from the Secure Digital Music Initiative. "My fear is that the music industry will come up with a standard that will help them bottle up the enormous value of music for their own gain," he said. "Their approach to piracy may sharply limit our own rights to fair use." Barlow, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead for more than 20 years, called music "the common property of humanity," but said this does not mean that copyrights do not have value in cyberspace. Recently, the Dead have decided to make some of their music available free on their site. Barlow's fear: That the Big 5 record companies (Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Universal Music Group, BMG Entertainment and Warner Music Group) through policy and technology, will monopolise trade in music as distribution moves online. That spells disaster, he said, adding that in the digital age, record companies will add little value besides promotion -- sort of like a Coca-Cola distributor. "We need to give back control to those that create, not the bottling plants." In the past, Barlow argued, such control has been good, because it took massive resources to deliver music to the world. Today, that is increasingly not true. "As someone who has created music," he continued, "it has always annoyed me that those whose interests were daring enough, or outside the mainstream, would have no chance to be distributed, because the record companies didn't think they could sell the minimum of 100,000 records." While Barlow's speech came on the day the EFF introduced a campaign to educate the public about the issues of online music distribution, he didn't get universal support. Jeff Price, general manager of independent label SpinArt, lambasted Barlow for lumping smaller, struggling record companies in with the Goliaths. "I have defaulted on my school loans to promote a band and then drove them myself to the concert," he said. "I am not one of the bad guys." Price suggested that Barlow himself was creating an issue to hide his own business agenda. Barlow plans to sell personalized CD compilations of the Dead's work. He also pointed at MP3.com, which recently filed for an initial public offering. "They are here because they want to make billions of dollars," he said. "There is nothing wrong with that. But they shouldn't be hiding behind this issue." Price agreed, however, that the Big 5 had too much influence over the industry, and that was hurting small companies like his own. "If I wanted to make a hit record in America, I have to deal with one or another of the top five corporations," he admitted. Should music be free? No, said Price. "Artists need copyright protections on their music to guarantee that they get paid for their work." Should music be free? If so, how would artists make a living? Tell the Mailroom

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