Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, you've heard of the debate over mp3s, CD music compressed into files small enough to transfer over the Internet, and the illegal distribution of copyrighted music.
Currently, the battle centres on Metallica's lawsuit against Napster, producer of the most popular mp3 trading software on the Web. Discussion boards abound with unproductive debate on the ethics of the situation and the future of the recording industry. The two warring parties can exchange flaming balls of rhetoric until Microsoft splits, but it will not change the inevitable outcome of the "mp3 revolution"; trading of music over the Internet (pirated or otherwise) will not go away, and recording artists will not starve to death. In the end, music will be more accessible, popular artists will realize wealth is a privilege, not a right and the Web will prove to be the equalizer it has always promised to be.
Lawsuits filed by various artists and the Recording Industry Association of America against mp3 sharing/distribution companies are pointless. Napster, which uses a central index of mp3 file locations to transfer music from one user's computer to another, will only be replaced by software such as FreeNet or Metallicster. These 'wares allow users to share files directly, without the use of a central database, making it almost impossible to blame a single entity for the transactions. Instead of setting a precedent for future, equally ineffectual litigation, the recording industry should spend its resources on technologies such as Liquid Audio which allow them to capitalize on the phenomenon, because mp3s are only the beginning.
Three inherent flaws keep mp3s from truly thriving. They provide inferior sound quality to CDs, users need access to the Internet to trade files and you don't get a fancy booklet. In 20 years, everything will change, kind of.
Computers will be more popular than the television, making the Internet a fact of life, but more importantly, almost every household will have broadband (i.e. fibre optic) connections, making the Internet thousands of times faster than it is today. There will be no need for mp3 compression; Home stereos will stream CD quality music directly off the 'Net in all it's digital goodness. Much of it will come from reputable distribution websites, but most I suspect will be pirated.
The recording industry will have eventually adapted by embracing online distribution, but more importantly by selling more reasonably priced CDs. The music industry won't be as profitable, but they'll survive. Why? Because the fans will still flock to the nearest A&B for the one thing the Internet can never provide -- a fancy booklet.
The next time you're on a discussion board debating the fate of the free world, remember this: the Internet may give capitalism a swift kick in the ass, but we still live in a materialist society and what we do best is consume. The only thing the Internet takes up is hard drive space. Where's the fun in that?