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Exhibition explores pros and cons of music in the digital age

Napster CEO Hank Berry (left) and Bertelsmann president Andreas Schmidt after agreeing to develop a system guaranteeing payments to artists

(Keystone Archive)

The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is hosting an exhibition which looks at how digital technology and the Internet is changing the face of music, and what copyright implications they bring.

Visitors who believe that music should be on a compact disc or cassette, and purchased from a record shop, will be in for a rude awakening. The exhibition, "Music in the Digital Age", demonstrates how new technology is transforming the way we make, record, disseminate and listen to music.

"The main point we want to make in this exhibition is that the new technology raises a number of challenges, especially with regard to copyright," says WIPO spokesman, John Tarpey.

"It also emphasises the responsibility of consumers not to take advantage of this new technology and in effect steal music from its creator," he told swissinfo.

The issue of copyright is perhaps the hottest topic in today's music world, and that is largely due to Napster, the Internet service which allows music files to be swapped free of charge. Today Napster is just one of hundreds of websites that use MP3 music compression technology to allow consumers to make unauthorized copies of countless songs.

Many music fans have welcomed these developments, saying they make music free, and help to break the dominance of the big corporations that control the music industry.

"In essence, you're taking a song and not paying for it. Young visitors to Napster have to be made aware that people are not being rewarded for the music they've created," Tarpey says.

Napster, which claims it has almost 40 million users, is being sued by five major record labels - Universal, Sony, Time Warner, EMI and Bertelsmann - for violating copyright legislation. It argues that it is only the conduit for individuals to search each other's computers and swap files, and is not itself breaking the law.

"The law is clear. If you put music on a hard disc which is linked to the Internet, you are infringing copyright," says Joergen Blomqvist, the head of WIPO's Copyright Law Division.

The problem is how to enforce the law, especially with the emergence of ever more sophisticated peer-to-peer networks such as Gnutella, which bypass the need for a central server.

In Napster's case, the industry has decided not to sue the individual consumer, meaning the legal question has shifted to Napster's responsibility as an intermediary.

"In reality it is the users who make these works available who are infringing copyright law," Blomqvist says. "So it has mainly been a political question: who are we going to sue? And so far, the industry has been reluctant to take action against individuals."

The exhibition, which lasts until August, explores the legal and technical solutions that could be used to curb these infringements of copyright law. They range from security systems being developed by the record companies to WIPO's own so-called Internet Treaties, which were concluded in 1996.

The exhibition also shows the positive side of digital technologies. While MP3 has fuelled unprecedented levels of music piracy, it has also allowed unknown musicians without a recording contract to promote and sell their music to a global audience via the Internet.

Technological advances have meant that the means of making music have become more democratic.

"Fifteen years ago, recording a CD would have needed a lot of very expensive equipment," Tarpey says.

"Now, for an investment of around SFr10,000 ($6,300) you can create your own home studio," he told swissinfo. Such a studio - consisting of a keyboard, a microphone, a computer and some sophisticated software - is available for visitors to experiment with.

"This has not only lowered the cost of entry for many musicians and allowed them to create more, they can also collaborate with other musicians on the other side of the world," Tarpey says.

Such technology will also inevitably change the way consumers buy their music in future. MP3 obviates the need for CDs. As well as paying for our music on the web, it will also be delivered on-line.

A number of the big record labels have already been setting up their own services for downloading music files. Bertelsmann, the lawsuit notwithstanding, has even formed an alliance with Napster.

WIPO will welcome such developments - as long as the music is paid for and the artist is rewarded for his or her work.

"It's the consumer's responsibility to respect copyright. If we don't, we are not rewarding creativity. And it's creativity that brings us the music we love to listen to," Tarpey says.

by Roy Probert


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