Tower Records, the McDonalds of music
merchants, announced that it has filed for bankruptcy. The BBC
reported that the chain “filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy
protection after illegal music downloading and heavy competition
hit revenues.” After five-fingering at Tower in my younger
years, downloading MP3’s on the web and patronizing
independent record stores, I’m glad to know that I have done
my part in bringing down part of the juggernaut of the
corporatization of the musical medium.

Mira Levitan

This all comes amid lawsuits from the wealthy Recording Industry
Association of America against people, mainly people of moderate
incomes and broke college students like you and me, involved in
file-sharing on the Internet. Both the RIAA and now Tower Records
are pointing the finger at poor suckers like us who make playlists
on Winamp via high-speed Internet for sending platinum jewelry-clad
record company executives on Sunset Boulevard into financial ruin.
Hogwash.

During the carefree days of the late ’90s and the first
years of the new millennium, when the economy was roaring and the
prospect of war was a laughable concept, MP3 downloading was in its
heyday, as Napster was the ubiquitous open program on computers in
dorm room parties across the nation.

What the RIAA, record companies and music mega-chains
don’t want you to know is that they were not excluded from
the wealth and prosperity of the Clinton years, and it can be
argued that Napster helped their profits. The economist Michael
Perelman writes in his book, “Steal this Idea,”
“Napster actually seemed to increase sales of CDs, by
allowing people to become familiar with new music.”

The controversy surrounding file sharing leads into a discussion
of the biggest threats to economic democracy in general: copyright
and patent laws.

These laws, sometimes known as intellectual property laws, like
the ones the RIAA are exploiting, are the ultimate contradiction of
capitalism. Rich industrialists know that even in a free market,
their positions as rulers are under threat of the potential success
of upstart entrepreneurs. So the capitalist class has collaborated
with the government to set up a complex system of legislation to
protect its position as the exclusive owner of intellectual
property, the means of scientific and artistic innovation.

The common myth about capitalists is that they are against all
government intervention in the market. In capitalist ideology this
is true, but in reality capitalists welcome government intervention
with open arms when that intervention protects the profits and
influence on the market of the existing capitalist class.

If markets are, indeed, democratic and the forces that drive the
market will raise the quality of life, then wouldn’t
copyright laws get in the way of maximizing growth? While markets
are by no means democratic, neither are these laws.

Intellectual property laws let record companies, stores and
radio stations present only the music they deem fit to become
popular. Through this system, independent musicians are practically
prohibited from promoting their art. This gives more credence to
the theory that intellectual property laws are a barrier, not an
impetus, to the free exchange of information and an enemy to
innovation.

File sharing allows for newer artists to disseminate their work.
People will be more likely to go to their shows and buy their CDs.
And at the same time, as the history of the market proves, record
companies will still make money. Thus, getting rid of our copyright
laws will provide for a more robust flow of information allowing
for more variety and innovation in music, publishing, technology
and lots else.

Tower Records did not fall because of people downloading music.
Tower could have fallen for a variety of reasons, including that it
was out of touch with younger consumers’ desire for diversity
in selection and availability of new art.

Steal this column.

Paul can be reached at
“mailto:aspaul@umich.edu”>aspaul@umich.edu.

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