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Wheels of Steal

THE ENDLESS, NUMBING TALK AMONG MUSIC- industry honchos and lawyers and musicians and fans about the digital cloning of music for distribution among friends -- or many others -- seems incapable of grasping the big picture of where we are sound-copying-wise, and it's my sad duty to tell them why all their jittery talk is moot: To wit, the lid has blown off. The technical means for cloning copyrighted recordings of music exists, and examples of it number in the millions, and those millions of recording devices are virtually cloning themselves. If the parties with an interest in protecting copyrights fully understood how and why it's too late to devise schemes (anti-copying chips, etc.) to prevent cloning, they'd make more profitable use of their valuable time and money, now wouldn't they?

The situation is almost funny: In the hysteria about the capacity of digital media to copy audio or video material, digital's big brother, analog, laughs his hairy head off. Analog ought to be laughing, because, in essence, he's the first-born brother to the thing itself -- the trumpet's cry, the crack of a snare drum, the ocean's roar; analog will always come first, and digital, even when copying a digital source, will almost always be an imitation of an analog source. Analog laughs because the sound quality of consumer digital and analog recording equipment in recent years has reached such a high point that, for human ears -- excluding those of our dear self-professed audiophiles, a self-deluding bunch -- the difference between an analog and a digital reproduction of an analog source has become, if not entirely indiscernible, then certainly superior to MP3 downloads.

I mention this because any one of the hundreds of millions of music fans around the world who owns a stereo amplifier, a tape recorder, a turntable, a CD player, a DVD player, a VCR, whatever -- any piece of equipment that has an analog output jack -- can link inputting and outputting devices together to copy the music contained within or flowing through them. Furthermore, most anyone can purchase the inexpensive audio recording software for home computers that allows for digital or analog input and output. Any stereo analog output line (which includes headphone jacks) can be fed into now-standard 16-to-24-bit software or hard-drive recording machines and imprinted on a digital medium such as CD, DVD, mini-disc or even VHS tape. It can then be filed at home for personal enjoyment, or attached as an e-mail document to a friend or two or several -- or distributed via that other hoary analog concept, the U.S. Postal Service. This scenario is not at all far-fetched, indeed for decades variations of it have been the basis for bootlegging on a massive scale throughout Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Mexico.

No digital-blocking scheme will ever prevent analog copying, because the two are separate, inviolable spheres of concept. And until listening to recorded music is outlawed -- with loudspeakers and headphones, get the picture? -- hundreds of millions of music fans worldwide will continue to have, with the most basic of consumer stereo equipment, the ability to copy the music they like. And most likely they'll keep doing it, not least because the intense focus by the music industry on the phenomenon of digital copying has served to heighten awareness of the very idea of copying, not to mention the ease and pleasure of doing it.

Of course, this amoral technician's commentary neglects to preach the dangers of copyright theft to musicians' livelihoods and the continued "health" of the recording industry. That happens to be another story, whose point will also remain moot until all concerned face the reality that prevention of unauthorized audio reproduction is now not virtually but literally impossible, and will remain so.


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