Ferocious Blue


unpublished letter to
The Wall Street Journal
April, 2001

To the Editor,

In reference to your 04/07/01 article "Royalty Fight Threatens Record Industry's Plans To Deliver Songs Online," I would like to say that I am disappointed to see your publication continuing to propogate the myth that online services such as Napster, MP3.com, and others distribute "perfect digital song copies." While the technology of online file transfer is theoretically capable of distributing digitally perfect copies, this ideal is far from being a practical reality today. A truly perfect digital copy of a typical music album takes up over 500 megabytes of storage and would require hours for a typical user to download from the Internet. That is why online users compress their files, and the MPEG 3 compression standard overwhelmingly favored to transfer files online today is by design an imperfect reproduction method. The MPEG 3 standard, or MP3 compression, is described by computer scientists as "lossy," meaning that it creates a file that contains less data than, and is therefore of inferior quality to, the original. Furthermore, the quality of the original song cannot be recovered by simply uncompressing the file--the quality level of the original is permanently lost via MP3 compression.

As a frequent user of Napster myself, I can attest that I have never once seen on it a "digitally perfect" copy of any song (i.e., a bit-for-bit reproduction of the file as it appeared on the original cd). In reality, song quality on Napster varies wildly from fairly ok to downright unlistenable, as I'm sure your own Mr. Mossberg can confirm. Thus, the notion that online users are exchanging "perfect digital song copies" is pure hype (on the part of the websites promoting it) or rhetoric (on the part of the record companies trying to supress it). The ones who suffer as a result of this misinformation are the poor users (often artists themselves) who are simply trying to help one another find the music they love.

Technologically, the circulation of online music is very much like the trading of tapes, and not very much like the reproduction of bootleg cd's. The issue from a cultural standpoint is not the perfection of the copies, but the sheer scale of distribution the modern information infrastructure allows. Since this concept does not as yet seem to have reached a mainstream audience, your publication has an unusual opportunity to place itself at the tech-savvy forefront of those that are willing to question the "perfect digital song copy" claim before passing it along unaltered.

-Larry Iversen
Vancouver, WA


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