Congress Holds Hearing on Digital Music

Who knew that Orrin Hatch liked Creed?

Or that the Utah Republican knew how to download music from the popular rock band off the Internet?

But as a Senate hearing on copyright issues relating to online dissemination of digital music began today, Hatch handily downloaded a Creed tune to demonstrate the ease of the process.

Drummer Lars Ulrich of the heavy metal band Metallica condemned online song-swapping entities such as Napster Inc. and MP3.com for giving away others’s music.

“Napster hijacked our music without asking,” said Ulrich, who went on to liken what Napster users do to theft.

Metallica brought a lawsuit in mid-April against the company for copyright infringement and racketeering several months after the Recording Industry Association of America sued the company on similar grounds last year.

But rock musician Roger McGuinn, formerly of the Byrds, was not so critical of Napster. He said record companies don’t always pay out royalties as they should, meaning artists lose anyway. And McGuinn testified that Web sites, in fact, have renewed people’s interest in the Byrds’ music.

Music Site CEOs Speak

Napster CEO Hank Barry and MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson defended their companies.

Pointing to strong record sales, Napster’s Barry maintained the online music trading his site facilitates is perfectly legal. “Copyright has always been about balance,” he said.

Robertson strove to distinguish his Internet music storage site MP3.com from quasi-rival Napster, stressing that today’s Senate Judiciary Committee proceedings, which have been dubbed “Napster hearings,” are misnamed.

“It’s consumer hearings,” said Robertson.

Robertson said that while his company was adhering to conditions resulting from settlements of lawsuits claiming copyright infringement disputes with two major record labels, he also said they could ultimately mean the end of his company. Several other lawsuits are still pending.

Hillary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, questioned the legality of such music sites’s practices. At times, both Barry and Robertson declined to answer questions they said related too closely to the pending lawsuits. But Rosen herself dodged a couple of simple questions put to her by Hatch, who asked if taping a CD that he owned so that he could listen to it in the car was legal under copyright laws.

Techie Talks

Gene Kan, a developer of the file-sharing software Gnutella, said he embraced the new and emerging technologies and called the Internet the “Holy Grail of distribution channels.”

To underscore the power of the Net’s distribution potential, Kan cited a personal example of a longtime search for John Denver and Johnny Cash music. Unable to locate for years what he was looking for in the San Francisco Bay area, Kan said he finally found the desired tracks online.

“Mechanized farming is a good example. You don’t see many people with horse and plow these days,” said Kan, who said it was unlikely that legislators or business or technologists could stem the tide of future technology.

Some 13 million Americans have downloaded music for free on their computers, according to a recent study.

Kan said, “20 million Napster users can’t be wrong.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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