Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Hey buddy, want an mp3?

After listening to a particularly frustrating show on “Online Music Piracy” on KQED this morning, I got to thinking about a few things.

1. It is totally, 100% legal for me to loan (or even sell) a CD to a friend.

2. It is totally, 100% legal for me to “time-shift” a copyrighted work (like a TV show) for later viewing (a la TiVo).

Therefore, it should be totally, 100% legal for me to loan a CD to a friend, who then encodes it to mp3 to listen to later.

Now let’s take it to the next logical step and leave out the CD altogether. It should be totally, 100% legal for me to loan a CD to a friend in mp3 format. Note that this is a non-monetary, one to one transaction. It’s lending to a friend – not mass distribution.

What the RIAA mouthpiece on Forum was going on about (when he wasn’t blowing smoke about the “artists” the RIAA has been screwing for years but now want to protect so badly) is that uploading a copyrighted song to a file-sharing network was distribution on a massive scale, and was therefore illegal piracy.

Fair enough. So what if we took the massive distribution out of the picture? What if I was just loaning music to my friends to review? That would be totally legal. And besides, I bet it would spur CD sales, as more people discovered more music. (One thing every dirty file-trader knows: Falling in love with an artist from a few downloaded mp3s can lead to lots of CD purchases. If you doubt it, I invite you over to see my bookshelf of Bjork CDs.)

So a practical example: I’m on a mac. I usually have iTunes (an mp3 player) and iChat (an instant messaging program) running. These two pieces of software know a lot about me: They know what music I like (via ratings in iTunes) and who my friends are (via buddies in iChat). They also know which of my friends are currently online and have the ability to send and receive files with them.

Together, they have all the pieces. How hard would it be to stitch the two together into a legal “lending to buddies” system? Add a contextual menu to a buddy’s icon that says “browse this person’s music.” If selected, the person on the other end would get a message: “User Name wants to browse your music. Is this person a friend that you’re willing to lend music to?”

They click yes and away you go. The browsing could take place in iTunes, with 30-second previews, just like in the iTunes Music Store. Except instead of a buy button, the user gets a “download for review” button. In some ways, this is the same functionality that was present, and then removed, in iTunes 4. But unlike that system (where anyone could tune in to your music, five users at a time), this system is only open to your buddies.

Or leave the apps out altogether. A “friend sharing” system could be stitched together solely on the web. Finally something to do on Friendster besides compare who’s list is bigger!

And in a flash, the “mass distribution” problem is gone, because you’re not distributing to the whole world. Remember, it’s not piracy to loan music to your friends. And best of all, imagine how much fun it’d be to browse your friend’s music libraries. You might even find some CDs you’d like to buy.

This plan wouldn’t stop the recording companies from treating their artists like something they stepped in. And it wouldn’t stop them from charging way too much for new CDs (if market pressure hasn’t brought the prices down yet, I don’t know what will). But it might just create a system strong enough to withstand the lawsuits that are beginning to fall like rain.

If you build it, sign me up!


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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