On the off-chance that you reached this page by clicking on the link from the dustbury.com index page, there's at least a slight possibility that you heard something recognizable as music, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, before the present page began to load. It's a MIDI sequence, one of thousands that float around the Net, and one of dozens of thorns in the side of the music industry. [Note: This has since been removed.—Chaz]

Unlike MP3s and such, MIDI sequences are not copies of original recordings; they are transcriptions of songs, playable on equipment adhering to the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard, invented around 1983, or extensions thereto. There are literally hundreds of MIDI-compliant instruments available, and most PC sound cards support at least the General MIDI specifications, so your computer can probably handle MIDI sequences with aplomb. Unfortunately, this ease of use gets in the way of enforcing statutory intellectual-property rights; music publishers — in the US, represented largely by their trade organization, the National Music Publishers Association, and its licensing arm, the Harry Fox Agency — tend to see MIDI as just one more form of music on which they should be collecting royalties.

Legally, the publishers would seem to have the better of the argument, though there is no shortage of opposition to their efforts. Still, the idea that nobody gets to use MIDI files without Harry Fox looking over his shoulder is not at all appealing. Record companies are generally up in arms over Net distribution channels over which they have no control, and so are music publishers. But unlike record companies, music publishers have little to gain by stomping on the Web; the recent HFA action against the International Lyrics Server, which was settled largely by cutting HFA in on the take from banner ads, suggests that the publishers are more interested in assimilating new technologies than in crushing them. Indeed, the NMPA has put together a site of its own, just to make sure it doesn't get left out of any revolutions that might be happening.

That still leaves unanswered the question of "What about those MIDI files on people's Web sites?" My answer, motivated at least partially by the possibility that I might have some sort of conscience, is the creation of some sort of board, to include both Net users and publishers' representatives, which would permit varying levels of MIDI usage on Web sites, and issue licenses to that effect to Webmasters. For a site like mine, which uses only a couple of sequences and makes no files available for download, the annual fee should be fairly minimal; distribution sites, understandably, would be expected to pay somewhat more. It's probably not an ideal situation for anyone — the industry might well resist the idea of building yet another infrastructure, and there is no shortage of Net users who resist the idea of paying for any sort of content whatsoever, but in the long run, I think it's as fair a system as we're likely to see.

The Vent

#154
22 June 1999

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