The influential band Radiohead split with its record label, EMI, in 2005 and announced last week that it will release one version of its new album via the Internet, allowing customers to download the music onto their computers and pay what they think is fair.

Editorial: Even in cyberspace, music isn't free

  • October 6, 2007 - 6:02 PM

It was hard not to think "Ouch!" last week after learning that a Duluth jury awarded damages of $222,000 against a Brainerd woman for illegally sharing music over the Internet. That does not mean, however, that the jury erred in what could be a landmark case touching on creative arts in the Internet age.

First, it's an important principle of American law that society compensate people who create music, literature and other forms of intellectual property -- and the companies that bring their work to market. Second, this case wasn't just about downloading songs for home listening; it was about uploading them again -- offering them for free to thousands of other consumers. Third, a case like this doesn't merely punish one listener for past behavior, it sends a message to many others. "I've already heard about a lot of parents sitting down with their kids and saying: 'This has got to end,"' said David Axtell, an intellectual property attorney at Leonard, Street and Deinard in Minneapolis.

Still, having notched this pivotal victory, the big music companies should rethink their relationships with customers and artists. The nation's basements are full of talented musicians who have figured out that they will never land a major recording contract and that the Internet is a better way of distributing music and communicating with listeners; just ask the Radiohead fan in your house. As for music consumers, well, it's better for a company to be thought of as the label that nurtured Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan than the international conglomerate with the baddest lawyers.

Meanwhile, everyone might feel more comfortable if the six music companies that brought this lawsuit found a creative epilogue that would not bankrupt a single mother from Minnesota.

If the Jammie Thomas case leaves people feeling ambivalent, that's because the Internet is rapidly changing the way everyone thinks about art and commerce. The public interest lies in supporting and promoting the "useful arts." It may be that distributing and creating music in the free-wheeling world of cyberspace is a better way to promote the nation's cultural interests than bottling it up with jewel cases and copyrights, but if so, the nation needs a new set of rules. "The system has served us well for a long time," says University of Minnesota law professor William McGeveran, "but it's starting to look a bit outdated."

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