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November 25, 2003

The Burning of MP3.com

One of my readers is asking about my thoughts on the eventual extinction of the MP3.com musical archives, and since I love it when people ask me to opine about subjects because it saves me from having to think up of subjects to opine about, allow me to indeed hold forth on this subject.

First, background. MP3.com is/was a Web site where amateur and pro musicians could upload their music for others to hear and, if they chose, buy. During the now-fabled Internet boom, it was valuated at close to a billion dollars and today it's worth, well, somewhat less. Several years ago MP3.com was purchased by Vivendi Universal, which for whatever reason didn't seem to know very well what to do with all these amateur musicians and their music files. In the space of the last couple of weeks VU sold MP3.com to C|net, who it is presumed will attempt to build it into some sort of commercial music site. But apparently VU didn't sell the archive of music and musician pages (or did and C|Net has no interest in them). Now every musician at MP3.com has until December 2nd to get their music files out of there before VU shuts down the servers and all that music -- more than one million mp3 files, reportedly -- is wiped.

This wholesale eradication of the MP3.com archives has people up in arms, including the founder of MP3.com, Mike Robertson, who likened the potential erasing of the MP3.com archives to the burning of a museum; others online have compared it to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. A number of organizations, including archive.org and Primetones.com, have offered to host the soon-to-be-deleted files, but at least so far, there seems to be no interest either from VU or C|net. That's where it is at the moment.

Two observations to make here. First and I think obviously, I don't see why either VU or C|Net shouldn't allow other organizations to take up the MP3.com archives. It would seem neither company wants them, and if others are willing to take them, why not? Archive.org does seem a natural fit and claims to have the space to take on the songs, and is also dedicated to the proposition that information should be freely shared. Indeed, not allowing an archive seems positively churlish, and on the C|Net part, seems a good way to make sure that a redesigned MP3.com is utterly without goodwill.

Having said that, I have to wonder why the people and organizations clamoring about the need for an archive don't simply start downloading file after file from MP3.com. The site, after all, encourages downloading the files (for now, anyway). Strictly speaking, if you have an account, you don't need additional permission to download the files. 10 days is not a whole lot of time to download the entire of MP3.com, but surely if people took it on as a distributed project, it could get done. 1,000 people with broadband connections could do it, and I bet you someone (not me) could organize the event and get more than 1,000 people to pitch in and download most -- if indeed not all -- of the MP3.com music files in the time remaining.

Once the downloading was completed, everyone could place these particular downloaded files on a P2P network, and there you have it: MP3P2P. Then Archive.org or whomever has an interest in archiving the material could do so at their leisure.

Now, legally, I'll admit we're getting into some interesting areas, but on the other hand, if you're an artist who has music on MP3.com, you're already agreeing to allow people to download your material for their own personal use. What's changing here is that people are downloading it from each other, for their personal use, rather than from MP3.com archives, which are now defunct in any case. I suppose either VU or C|Net could try to go after those who are on the MP3P2P, but considering that they're ready to dump the entire archive, it seems odd that they would then try to go after people for picking through it.

So yeah, there's my first point: The organizations with the MP3.com archives should let other organizations archive -- and even if they don't, people committed to the idea idea of this music being archived should archive it themselves anyway. Call it Commercial Disobedience: An act of saying "Screw You" to those who choose their own short-sighted goals over the long-term value of the Net.

Second point: It's not as bad as people seem to think. The closing of the MP3.com archives is nothing like the burning of the Library of Alexandria, because the nature of the Internet itself allows for the multiplicity of information. When the Library of Alexandria burned, tens of thousands of original scrolls full of information were lost forever. If the Louvre were to burn, thousands of pieces of original art would be gone for ever. When the MP3.com archives goes, thousands of copies of original sound files are gone -- NOT the originals of that information. Those originals still exist -- and indeed, are endlessly replicatible. With the loss of MP3.com, we're not losing a million pieces of music, we're losing the organizational structure that makes them easy to locate.

There is nothing stopping any of the musicians who put their music on MP3.com from placing that music elsewhere on the Web: On their own Web sites, or on IMUA, or on dmusic, or indeed, in archive.org's audio section. Indeed, I would imagine that many artists who were on MP3.com already have their music elsewhere. I know I am; I had a couple of tracks on MP3.com, but I also serve up those tracks on my IndieCrit.com site as well, and copies also exist on the AcidPlanet site. Losing MP3.com doesn't mean that the artists on it have no other options to put their music online. That music is not gone forever. It's merely scattered.

Likewise, since what we're losing are copies of music, not originals, it's not like a museum or a library has been burned; more like a chain bookstore or a museum gift shop. I am optimistic those artists who want their music online will get it back online in a reasonably short period of time -- if it's not already online somewhere else.

So, you know, relax a bit. Yes: Very bad the MP3.com archive could be lost. But not catastrophic. Not even close.

Posted by john at November 25, 2003 02:50 PM

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