u_topn picture
rub_dc picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Weathermen," by Harvey Blume (February 24, 1999)
Two recent books forecast a digital future of wearable computers, neural implants, and silicon-based immortality. But something is missing from the picture: sex and advertising.

"Virtual Reality Bites Back," by Mark Dery (January 28, 1999)
"It's not that cyberspace fails to resolve the social contradictions of the 'real world,'" Julian Dibbell writes, "but rather that it doesn't even resolve its own." An e-mail exchange with the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World.

"Use Technology to Raise Smarter, Happier Kids," by David Shenk (January 7, 1999)
We shape our toys, and our toys shape us. David Shenk reports on the new generation of "thinking" playthings and asks, What will the toys of tomorrow bring? What will they take away?

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
The MP3 Revolution
A new technology may carry us back into our musical and cultural past

by Charles C. Mann

April 8, 1999

One of the oddest things about the Internet is that despite its purportedly revolutionary nature, it has yet to produce anything revolutionary. Shopping without actually visiting a store? Catalogues have let people do the same thing for decades. Instant communication over global distances? Available since the invention of the telegraph. Electronic mail? A century ago, most urban areas had so many daily postal deliveries that people could exchange several messages a day. Instant, uncontrollable diffusion of information? Despite Victor Hugo's efforts in 1862 to control the publication of Les Misérables, which included sequestering the galleys, pirate publishers produced eleven bootleg editions of his mammoth novel in Belgium alone within a week of its appearance. The technological tools are faster and more efficient today than they were before, but they're not different in kind.

MP3 could change that.

Technically speaking, MP3 is just a method for shrinking digital sound files, especially files of music, to a more manageable size. More than that, though, MP3 is a marvelously clear example of how an apparently small technological change can have unexpected and explosive impacts on society. Indeed, MP3 might become the first innovation on the Net that actually deserves the appellation "revolutionary."

The MP3 Revolution
The term "MP3" is -- horrible to contemplate -- an abbreviation of an abbreviation. It stands for "MPEG-1 Layer 3," a technical standard created by the Moving Picture Experts Group, an ad hoc organization based in Italy and supervised jointly by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission. Coordinated by Leonardo Chiariglione, an engineer at the Italian equivalent of the old Bell Labs, MPEG has been creating standards for digital video and audio since 1988. The standards involve transmitting, storing, and reproducing pictures and sounds, and, perhaps most important, shrinking them. Converted into digital form, images and noises become huge, multimegabyte agglomerations of zeroes and ones that simply overwhelm many networks. Asking a personal computer to project a movie on a monitor or play a symphony on its speakers is like asking it to push the ocean through a straw.

In the past few decades, computer scientists have figured out methods to compress parts of these agglomerations while maintaining their essential character, in somewhat the way that I can write "Atlntc Unbnd" to mean "Atlantic Unbound." In the late 1980s, one of these shrinkage schemes was jointly developed by the University of Erlangen, in Germany, and the Institut Integrierte Schaltungen (Institute for Integrated Circuits), a nearby thinktank. It decreased the size of music files by a factor of twelve or more, which today permits a typical four-minute rock song to be downloaded into a typically equipped personal computer in something like five minutes. When MPEG embraced this method, one of three different compression methods the group endorsed, it became known as the "third layer" of the first MPEG standard: MPEG-1 Layer 3.

In 1995, the Institut began distributing "shareware" for making MP3 files -- that is, programs that anyone could download for free, try out, and pay for later. The technology, says Chiariglione, was originally targeted at a type of interactive compact disc -- CD-I, marketed by Philips -- that no longer exists. It was also intended for digital radio, which doesn't exist, either. Nobody at MPEG realized how quickly the Net would become ubiquitous, Chiariglione says. Or how quickly personal computers would become cheap and powerful enough to use MP3. As a result, the inventors of this technology were as surprised as everyone else by what MP3 software would be used for, and by who would use it. Or, to put it more exactly: they didn't forsee Blex.

Blex is the online name of Michael Kramer. According to his autobiographical Web page, Blex is a six-foot, 145-lb., eighteen-year-old McDonald's grill person of the month and fan of power-symphonic-German-progressive-death-metal music. He enters the story in the spring of 1997, on the occasion of his senior prom, which he did not attend. "There was nothing to do," his autobiography explains, "seeing that all the people I know were at the prom, and I was at home." Noodling around the Web in what would seem to have been his ample spare time, Blex had previously come across several sites on the Internet where people had placed MP3 files: songs that they had illicitly copied from audio CDs, compressed with MP3 software, and put on the Web for people to download freely. Bored on prom night, Blex decided to list these places on his personal Web page.

Word got around. People sent him more URLs. He put them up, attracting more visitors, who passed on more URLs. Eventually Blex had pointers to thousands of songs, more than ten thousand daily visitors to his Web page, the belief that he had "made a difference in the world" -- and, last year, the angry attention of Jim Griffin, the director of technology for Geffen Records.

From The Atlantic:

"Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?," by Charles C. Mann (September 1998)
Some corporations want to lock up copyright even tighter. Some naive intellectuals want to abandon copyright altogether. Where is a "do-nothing" Congress now that we need one?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Copyright?" (September 1998)
What is at stake in the battle over intellectual property in the information age? Charles C. Mann, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig, and Mark Stefik join in a special Atlantic Unbound roundtable discussion.

Geffen wasn't the only company blindsided by Blex and his cohort. None of the big music studios had imagined that thousands of high school and college students with Pentium PCs would be willing to spend hours downloading music and playing it on their computers. But they were. Only in 1997 -- as people on five continents eagerly sought MP3 information from the Blexes of the world -- did the studios launch a campaign against illicitly copied music on the Internet. Their vehicle for the battle was the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that represents about 350 record labels. RIAA issued bulletins, sent nasty letters, filed a few lawsuits, and complained in the media. It successfully lobbied Capitol Hill to pass the strict guidelines in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It persuaded Johnny Cash to testify in Congress about finding bootleg copies of his classic rendition of "Ring of Fire" on an MP3 site in Slovenia. And last December the association announced its plan to create a security standard that somehow would let studios control the use of their copyrighted material on the Internet. RIAA says its standard should be ready for Christmas 1999.

Maybe it will work, and piracy will be cut back. But it may not matter. For all the attention lavished on pirated MP3 music, the real threat faced by the studios may be legal MP3 music, according to Hal Varian, the dean of the School of Information Management Systems at the University of California at Berkeley, and a co-author, with his colleague Carl Shapiro, of Information Rules.

Varian says, in effect: Consider the economics of music. Right now the music business is dominated by a handful of large studios with a history of antipathy to electronic technology. Fearing unauthorized reproduction, these companies fought the advent of cassette recorders, managed almost to stop the introduction of digital audio tapes, and are trying to fight off the impact of MP3. In economic terms, the record labels were wrong about cassettes, which have become an industry profit center, and might have been wrong for the same reasons about digital audio tape. But they could be right to fear MP3, which could replace rather than enhance their traditional business. "They have this terrible problem with their legacy," Varian says. "They still have to be in bed with Tower Records to sell their CDs. Any move they make to go on the Net will be instantly punished by their current distributors." This bind, in Varian's view, creates room for what economists call new entrants to the market. In less abstract terms, it opens the gate for MP3.com.

Continued ... Go to the next page

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Charles C. Mann is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His cover story on the future of intellectual property, "Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?" (September 1998), has been nominated for the 1999 National Magazine Award for Reporting.

Illustration by Sage Stossel

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search