Covering music file–sharing and the future of innovation
First Monday

Covering music file-sharing and the future of innovation by Adrienne Russell

This paper explores the coverage of file–sharing from before the RIAA/Napster trial of 2000, drawing on interviews with journalists from the New York Times, Wired, Salon and the Los Angeles Times and on analysis of their stories and columns of opinion. It argues the file–sharing story saw “establishment” journalists unapologetically move away from long–established norms of journalism — by relying on alternative sources and by frankly including their own points of view, for example. The course of the stories these journalists produced points to the tensions that continue to mount in the new–media news landscape and to the forces that shape stories in the mainstream press. For more than a decade U.S. journalists lingered on the margins of profound questions about the limits of freedom under the rule of the market. Yet, with the emergence of the recording industry into the online music scene, journalists backed off, leaving the questions they raised unanswered and the larger issues behind the questions mostly unaddressed.


The Coverage




During the summer of 2003, a video satire of the eighties all–star hit “We Are the World” circled the Web. It featured animated caricatures of pop music celebrities who came out against file–sharing. Cartoon versions of Eminem, Sheryl Crow, Lars Ulrich and others joined in a mock–sappy chorus that cried out “Sue all the world/Sue all the children.” The video is one of the many manifestations of protest against music industry attempts to squash file–sharing. On discussion boards at file–sharing sites like Gnutella and KaZaA, users vowed to boycott major record labels. Others encouraged users outside the U.S. to share more files in defiance of the recording industry and U.S. copyright law.

The battle between the recording industry and file–sharing music fans is still playing out in the media, including of course on the Web. This mediated discussion has been the main channel through which the public has come to understand file–sharing and related issues such as copyright and intellectual property law. This discourse spiked during coverage of the 1999 Recording Industry Association of America’s successful copyright infringement court case against Napster, the first popular file–sharing Web site. Since then, perceptions of file–sharing have shifted. Once generally viewed as the outlaw work of cyberpunks and hackers, file–sharing became mainstream fare, the healthy hobby of interested and intelligent consumers. The battle between the music industry and music file–sharing sites and their users provides a compelling example of the process by which innovative technologies and behavior can move between deviant to conventional and the role of journalism in that process.

News media treatment of the file–sharing controversies also constitutes a resource to study the tensions and shifts in journalism practices and norms. New media sources — weblogs, so–called meta–news or commentary sites, real–time video feeds, mobile phone instant messaging — all play loosely with standards and stream easily across editorial borders. The concept of professional reporting has lost shape, unsettling understandings shared among journalists about news norms and practices. In 1998 Matt Drudge, for example, author of the Weblog that broke the Lewinsky–Clinton scandal, was a hacker as well as a pariah among the journalism community. Insiders said he was a sensationalist conspiracy monger with no professional credentials or cares. And yet he began appearing on Sunday morning talk shows alongside the biggest names in broadcast journalism. Slate, the online news magazine edited then by veteran journalist Michael Kinsley, touted Drudge Report as an insightful and lightning–fast source for news (1999). So what changed? Although Drudge remained bereft of professional credentials and is still chasing down sensational political news and gossip, journalists came to accept the Web as a legitimate news medium just in time for the online music battles.

This article explores the coverage of file–sharing from before the Napster trial of 1999, taking into account the story as it generally developed throughout the launch of iTunes and other legal file–sharing sites. It focuses on interviews with several key journalists and on analysis of their stories and columns of opinion. Amy Harmon at the New York Times, Janelle Brown at, Brad King and John Alderman at Wired, and Joe Mann at the Los Angeles Times, and Eric Hellweg at Business 2.0 contributed key stories on court cases, technology innovations, and on debates among legislators, among music industry personalities and artists, and among copyright and intellectual property lawyers. These journalists are among the most prolific writers on music file–sharing. The New York Times is the paper of record in the United States. Wired is one of the most widely read and the longest–running cyber– and tech–culture publication in the country. The Los Angeles Times leads the nation in coverage of the entertainment industry and is often cited as having the most thorough coverage of the file–sharing debates. is one of the earliest and one of the most influential U.S.–based Web magazines. Business 2.0 is at the forefront of tracking new media and business trends. As reporters for these publications, these journalists helped set the agenda for the increasingly international debate about the future of file–sharing and of the music industry.

The Hacker Ethic

The architecture of the Internet as it was initially created minimized control, which many of the early users believe encouraged innovation and the free flow of information. In his book The Hacker Ethic (2001) Pekka Himanen articulates the new ideology and ethos of the information age, which he argues is in direct opposition to those of the industrial age emphasized on bureaucracy and the individual’s moral obligation to work hard as outlined by Max Weber’s famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus). The hacker ethic is based on the idea that sharing information, ideas, and tools facilitates progress and innovation and thus it is the ethical duty of the hacker to write free software and to facilitate access to information and computing resources whenever possible. System cracking is considered ethical as long as the hacker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality (Raymond, 1996). Cultural manifestations of this ethic can be spotted far beyond the community of computer programmers and software developers, most notably in the organizational trend toward vertical rather than hierarchical structures, and in the millions of people who have expanded their role from audience members to media creators — bloggers, machinima artists, mash–up video makers, music remixers, among others — and who are posting their work free of charge on the Internet.

The hacker ethic is to take what you need to innovate and build and to give what you have to the cause of innovation. Indeed this was the case with Napster, the first technology to make the exchange of music files simple and fast. To some Napster was a device that facilitated theft of music. But what was truly amazing about Napster was the range of content that Napster made available. Suddenly musicians no longer needed a record label to produce and distribute their music. And fans were no longer limited to the tastes of music industry executives and retail owners. This quantitative change in the variety of music and in the number of people who could act as taste–making gatekeepers for themselves and their peers signaled a qualitative change in the public’s role in the music industry.

Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, staunch defender of the hacker ethic, argues that due to recent increases of corporate and governmental control of the Internet, the door to a future of ideas is being closed, just as we are glimpsing the extraordinary potential of that future. Creativity thrived on the Internet because it was protected by what Lessig calls an “innovation commons” — where the architecture of the original Internet minimized control, which encouraged innovation. Open space was protected by law so that culture and information could flow freely. According to Lessig, however, the structural design of the Internet is legally and technically in flux:

Just the time that the Internet is reminding us about the extraordinary value of freedom, the Internet is being changed to take that freedom away. Just as we are beginning to see the power that free resources produce, changes in the architecture of the Internet — both legal and technical — are sapping the Internet of this power. Fueled by a bias in favor of control, pushed by those whose financial interests favor control, our social and political institutions are ratifying changes in the Internet that will reestablish control and, in turn, reduce innovation on the Internet and in society generally. [1]

Particularly stifling, Lessig believes, is the aggressive protection of copyrights, which has allowed media and software giants to monopolize cultural, intellectual, and political life. Yet the suggestion that the protection of copyrights is wrong seems radical, like nostalgia for a less civilized, less complicated time. While Lessig stresses the need for the law to protect the innovation commons, Geertz Lovink, media theorist and founder of numerous online forums, publications and projects including the international mailing list nettime (, maintains that the incredibly large and effective innovation commons that developed around Napster demonstrates that innovation is not as vulnerable to legally imposed limits as Lessig would have us believe. He writes “breaking the law is often a starting point for the creation of better legislation that opens up the media sphere” [2], an idea echoed by many of the journalists I spoke with. Geertz advocates an imaginary or utopian rather than a legal definition of the information commons because it reflects more accurately what “techno–citizens” are actually experiencing. He writes, “instead of lamenting the disappearance of public space … today’s artists, activists and coders are actually shaping and radicalizing the ‘dotcommons’.” According to him, these innovators accept that digital commons are temporary, unstable and fluid — easily outdated, closed down, or swept away by the next technological wave.



The Coverage

News professionalism in flux

In 1994 when MP3 technology was first developed and used to download music and stories in the news about file–sharing were infrequent, and the print and online editions of Wired produced some of the most thorough coverage. Around the time that the RIAA sued Napster in 2000, music downloading erupted into a fantastic story complete with rocks stars, corporate villains, and teenage heroes. Salon reporter Janelle Brown says:

There was a certain amount of, I don’t want to say propaganda, but that’s what it was. It was the story of the year in 2000. And it was such a great story — this great new program, the reaction of the recording industry, Metallica’s testimony to Congress, and all the rest. There were so many newsworthy events like lawsuits, statements to the press, protests. And there was also a lot of editorializing from journalists — a sort of chorus of voices saying that the recording industry is ridiculous — right around the time of the Napster lawsuit.

Brown’s frank assessment points to the less traditional climate of journalism emerging at outlets like Salon and surrounding file–sharing and other digital–age stories.

Brad King of Wired News believes this climate swayed public opinion toward the point of view of an elite and technologically savvy band of journalists:

I think the rise of digital media has really had an effect on the difference of opinion between the music industry and the public when it comes to file–sharing. Wired News (, CNET’s (, and Salon ( shaped much of the early coverage about file–sharing. The major media companies didn’t really join the party until a few years into this. These three outlets, by and large, are staffed by young, bright, energetic reporters who are attuned to the technology age. They understand the ins–and–outs of what this all means for the culture, and the power of the technology simply because they are the first generation to grow up completely digital. Other voices have joined in as the story has gone more mainstream, and you’re actually seeing several big outlets now hammering on file–sharing, in part because the people who work at those places — while fine reporters and decent people — don’t “think digitally.” To them, the Internet is a place that should be regulated and looked upon in the same way the real world is.

Wired News is no alternative culture zine. On the contrary, Wired is owned by Conde Nast, a fact that further suggests a mainstream journalism had emerged online and off at the time that saw “mainstream” as a derogatory term and that acknowledged youth as a “core competency” for reporters working the digital–age beat.

Andrew Leonard, Business and Technology editor of Salon, celebrates digital media influence on mainstream journalism.

The authority of journalist has been greatly undermined by the Internet, which is a good thing. You make a mistake and people are going to point it out. You can make a big case that Howell Raines would not have been forced to resign from the New York Times had it been in the pre–Internet era. You had emails and posting from Times staffers on Romenesko Media News site that were really revealing of the internal culture there.

Leonard believes that the increased ability to receive and distribute information over the Web involves news consumers more directly in the business of producing the news, mainly because news professionals are no longer beyond public scrutiny. Several qualities of the news coverage of file–sharing examined here suggest further that there is a related shift in the way stories are covered.

Online news outlets — in part because of their lack of space constraints, their use of links, and the priority they grant the story — have set a high standard for timely and in–depth coverage. Janelle Brown’s stories are typically long (1,500+ words) and include links to Web sites as well as articles in Salon and other publication that are relevant to the story. In an article about music industry economy, for example, links allow the reader to explore the topic on his/her own and gives a depth, or “horizontal” aspect, to the coverage that is virtually impossible to achieve in print publication.

Leonard believes that newspapers like the Times are still constrained by the norms of professional journalism. He says:

It’;s actually hard for me to judge mainstream coverage because Salon has been way out in front on covering this beat. When I see the New York Times and Amy Harmon has a front–page story on file–trading I don’t pay that much attention to it because we did that story months ago. Besides when you are writing for theNew York Times you have to present this façade of objectivity and give equal merit to record companies and file–sharers so its hard to tell what she really thinks.

No doubt Harmon intentionally does not spotlight her opinions and this apparent objectivity gives her credibility in some circles. Leonard’s comments suggest however that the quality of a story depends at least in part on the perspective of the reporter.


The major file–sharing stories are informed by a variety of unconventional sources — online discussion boards, hackers, rogue site users, software developers, unsigned musicians, and so on. In the context of news coverage of online music, the authority of traditional sources — government officials, business executives — has also been diminished in part because the “experts” on Web music are more often found online or at a mixtape party than in a government building or corporate headquarters. These new “authorities” are media–savvy and skilled at getting their points of view in the news. Some celebrities, like Napster founder Shawn Fanning, have publicists to ensure that their point of view is picked up by the media. Others resort to more pedestrian tactics — protests, boycotts, contacting reporters directly, letters to the editor, etcetera.

Salon’s Janelle Brown explains that it was not only journalists who sought the insights of online music innovators:

One of the best sources of information was Phil, a mailing list/discussion group about the digital music world. Its members were the elites in business and journalism, RIAA executives, and innovators like Shawn Fanning and Justin Frankel. People would exchange ideas about digital music and there were often heated debates. The music industry was on there trying to figure out how to get into the digital music scene and make money off of it. A lot of great editorializing came out of this list.

Even Amy Harmon’s New York Times coverage, which relied on more traditionally credible sources, includes the perspectives of Internet users and software and hardware developers. She occasionally uses listserv postings as sources of information for her stories, which at the time was uncommon at the Times and at other mainstream publications. Despite the diversity of sources, official industry rhetoric is reflected in her stories. She refers to downloading or swapping music files as “piracy” and describes the millions of file–sharing Americans as “pirates,” for example. Yet support for file–sharing can be detected in her stories — in the way she includes industry perspectives but only at the end of the story, and in her lengthy quoting of Lessig and other articulate foes of the industry [3].

Majority rules: objectivity vs. advocacy

Journalists claimed by and large that, in the case of the story of online music, they were reflecting rather than creating public opinion. And several of the journalists I interviewed expressed a belief that the law was simply lagging behind society in the case of music file–sharing. Leonard said:

There is always going to be a cool, even deviant, factor in the beginning with new technologies. That experience is something people want, but eventually majority rules. Policy needs to catch up with the will of the people. Congress ruled that home taping was okay, not because the Supreme Court said this particular copyright violation is okay, but because everyone was doing it. A whole different part of the story is the influence that giant media companies have over legislation and the courts. There is a significant movement on the part of media companies to reduce the things people can do with intellectual property. So it’s kind of under assault. In that sense file–sharing represents a response to that assault. There is this sort of freedom fighting aspect to it. A lot of people don’t even think of it in those terms. Digital technologies offer more and less control at the same time.

“There is always going to be a cool, even deviant, factor in the beginning with new technologies.”

And Eric Hellweg who wrote for Business 2.0 believes that the recording industry has a right to be angry about what is happening but he wonders at what point majority rules:

According to the law it is deviant. But is it still deviant when more than three million people are doing it? Perhaps the recording industry is being deviant. This is an increasingly common perception and I think it goes along with an increased distrust of capitalism and corporations.

These comments echo the common trope that journalism mirrors reality. Yet in this case reality seems to be in direct opposition to the status quo. So while shifts in the norms of professional journalism allow for, in this case, the law to be called into question, journalists still rely on the idea that their work is value free, that it simply reflects rather than shapes reality.

“According to the law it is deviant. But is it still deviant when more than three million people are doing it?”

The gift economy makes way for the new economy

Andrew Leonard describes a significant shift over time in the nature of file–sharing coverage:

At first, it was a morality story — is it technically legal et cetera. Now the story is about control and power. So the much more interesting thing is not so much if what a kid is doing is legal or illegal. Now what is interesting is the ability of Disney, Fox, Time/Warner to get laws changed. So it’s the link between technology and society and how it’s being driven by corporate interests.

Leonard’s assertion that file–sharing became essentially a story about power was echoed by a number of journalists. He and others criticize journalists’ for failing to challenge this power imbalance in any meaningful way:

Count all the stories written about the file–sharing threat to the record industry compared to Disney getting the Mickey Mouse copyright extended by an act of Congress every time it’s about to run out … [Which poses] more trouble to the future of society — that one single corporation can get a major copyright law changed every time it needs to? Or that a bunch of people who are the recording industry’s biggest consumers are trading files? This is the biggest disparity.
The fight over file–sharing is froth compared to the fight over who controls the innards of the machine. The Net is built out of software and eventually everything is going to come through a computer–like object in your house and if Microsoft or Time/Warner controls that software they can know what we’re watching, they can charge micro–payments for each 15–minute segment of the “West Wing.” But if the infrastructure is commoditized and anyone can use a free software alternative, then we have the power.

The fight over file–sharing is froth compared to the fight over who controls the innards of the machine.

Leonard and others lament what they see as increasing threats to freedom on the Internet — whether this freedom for them is embodied in open source (Moody), the gift economy (Barbrook), the innovation commons (Lessig), or the hacker ethic (Levy). Reporters on file–sharing likewise saw corporate profit–making as a threat to the free flow of information fostered by the original celebrated Internet architecture of minimal control.

Staunch opposition to corporate control of the Web, however, does not necessarily translate to an anti–recording industry stance. For example in his book Sonic Boom (2002) Eric Alderman attributes the music industry’s determination to resist online music to what he describes as the gift economy, or the origins of the Internet built on the idea of sharing (not selling) information. He argues that despite recent commercialization, the gift economy is the heart of the Internet. People build Web sites, send e–mail, contribute to mailing lists and are generally happy to provide others with information. It is this non–commercial nature of the Internet that threatened what he describes as the “greedy profit–seeking” music industry. Yet many of the people Alterman profiles (and indeed celebrates) aimed to profit financially. While there were a few true hackers that worked tirelessly for information to be free, most of the people involved in making music available online to download and to share were not just trying to get compensated for their work, they were entrepreneurs trained on tapping into the fortune promised by the Internet boom.

Alderman says those who developed online music file–sharing were not opposed to working with the music industry, helping them to make a profit. He explains how those who developed MP3 technology and music–distribution sites attempted to work with the recording industry, proposing ways for it to profit from the new technology, trying to gain copyrights. But the recording industry, threatened and mistrustful of the online music community, failed to see the value of collaborating with these innovators. Deprived of a legal method of obtaining music over the Web, people began swapping digital copies of music collections with each other.

LA Times reporter Joseph Menn, a self–proclaimed advocate of the Internet innovation commons, never addresses the tension between capitalism and the gift economy. In his book All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster (2003) he concludes that the demise of Napster was due to internal chaos in the company and a series of devastatingly bad business decisions unrelated to the RIAA court case that eventually resulted in the order to shut down. He writes, “All told, the undisclosed chaos, betrayal and dissention within Napster made the record–industry law suit look like a friendly game of chess.” [4] In Menn’s eyes, Napster owner Shawn Fanning and the recording industry are all the victims of “foolish business.” The Bertelsmann executives, who Menn says ruined their career trying to save Napster, are the heroes.

This tension between support for the gift economy and a belief in everyone’s right to make money off the Internet is key to understanding how coverage of the story evolved. By 2004, the vast majority of stories about online music were reviews of legal corporate products and services. Hellweg describes coverage of Apple’s iTunes launch, for example, as “universal fawning.” Many of the journalists I spoke with seemed relieved when the recording industry had finally come on board. They had been saying all along that the industry’s biggest mistake was not taking advantage of the Internet — now that it was taking advantage all was right again in the world of business journalism. The journalists and their sources could return to the same side of the story.

Salon’s Janelle Brown is the only reporter I spoke with who was critical of the music industry’s emergence online. In general she portrays online music and the surrounding issues and debates as a tale of an industry desperately resisting technology innovation in attempt to preserve its own relevance. Under the headline “The music revolution will not be digitized” she writes:

Once upon a time, a revolution brewed. Righteous artists, technologists and youthful entrepreneurs launched digital music start–ups, determined to take people away from the conglomerates that controlled the recording industry and deliver it into the hands of the little people. The dream was everywhere: Artists would use the Net to connect directly with fans and everyone would escape the tyranny of record labels and onerous contracts and overpriced CDs.

Five years after the revolution started, Brown says in the same story, “through a brutal combination of business savvy, legal warfare and simple cartel power, the Big Five record labels have maneuvered the digital distribution into their control.”

Offline, she admits the advantages of the corporate–run sites:

My boyfriend has spent about 50 dollars on iTunes in the last week because it is so much more convenient than the rogue sites. The recording industry has spent so much time and money on copyright protection, sabotaging file–sharing sites, and scaring users that people welcome the legal alternative — not because it’s right but because they just want music. Anyway, 99 cents per song is not so bad a price because you can get exactly the songs you want.

The success and current coverage of legal file–sharing sites suggest that Brown’s opinion is widely held. When iTunes launched for Macs in March 2003 one million copies were downloaded in the first seven days. And seven months later when they launched the new iTunes for Windows, one million copies were downloaded and one million songs purchased within three day. After the launch of Apple’s iTunes, and other legal downloading platforms like those run by Yahoo, MSN, AOL, MusicMatch, Rhapsody and BuyMusic, and the relaunch of Napster as a legal service, writers offered congratulations on a daily basis to the recording industry for joining the online music revolution. While legal sites are celebrated, however, the RIAA’s legal battle against file–sharing is met with scorn by journalists. Indeed the RIAA and other industry defenders are still sharply criticized and ridiculed for its brutish tactics of going after individual file–swappers including, it is always pointed out, children [5]. According to Wired, as of January 2006, 16,000 people have been sued in the United States for allegedly distributing copyrighted works (Thompson, 2006). Yet discussions about the future of online music are depoliticized, discussed in terms of consumer rights and desires rather than issues of freedom, innovation, and the constraints of capitalism. Music file–sharers originally were viewed as innovative, esoteric, deviant and even dangerous. They were hackers. The popularity of Fanning’s Napster file–sharing code and the court case that outlawed its use signaled an evolution in perceptions of music file–sharers. If still outlaws, file–sharers are no longer hackers, not deviant and esoteric, but merely music lovers adopting the latest music–playing technology. With the digital ascendancy of corporate giants like Apple and Sony the hacker counter–culture is subsumed into the culture of business. As news sources, hackers have gone from commenting on intellectual property law, the latest technological innovation, and recording industry tactics against file–sharing sites and users, to offering assessments of newly launched corporate products and services. The introduction of the easier–to–use corporate sites and the continuing legal risks of opposing the industry have won the industry customers. A parallel development is the increasing disappearance of discussions about copyright law and the gift economy in the mainstream press.




An important story the media failed to cover concerned media coverage of the story. The file–sharing news story stretched the norms of professional journalism in fairly dramatic ways — ways that echoed developments in the music industry as they were reported by the media. Suddenly, key sources for music stories weren’t primarily industry executives and spokespeople. It was sometimes the opposite: those were the people to avoid talking to if you were looking to report “news.” The source of choice was instead the alleged criminals — file–sharers. Top journalists wanted to talk to the people who were stealing music, who were doing it very competently, and who were helping others to do the same. What’s more, by in large, reporters became file–sharers. If you didn’t file–share, you risked disdain and irrelevancy. Although becoming the thing you are reporting on is rarely the best approach and almost never professionally recommended, the generally conceded exception to the rule in this case proved the worth of the story. A favorite teenage mantra lay at the heart of the discussion: “If everybody’s doing it, how can it be wrong?” It was a small step to go from reporting the mantra to championing the cause. But what was the cause exactly?

The most interesting aspect of the story was the path it cut as it swerved through at least three significant ideological turns. First there was a searching out and an embrace of the pioneering hacker ethic and the gift economy. This, as far as mainstream U.S. journalists go, was fairly radical stuff. More non–capitalist than anti–capitalist, at least as it was reported, this material came with a base of intellectual supporters who had been banging away at related theories for well over a decade. The hacker ethic, though, benefited from more than carefully worked through theory. It also basked in the glow of success: the Internet and the technology and information boom that spun out of the Web were arguably born of the products of this relatively new set of ideas. Path–breaking journalists reporting the file–sharing story (and unquestionably doing a lot of file–sharing) latched onto the hacker ethic and worked it into stories that often ended up wrestling with the meaning of freedom. These were, in effect, non–political political stories.

Those stories gave way to more traditionally anti–corporate capitalist pieces, which had a Hollywood bent, where evil corporations were squashing the individualistic, the entrepreneurial, the democratic spirit. These pieces extol the little guy, the cornerstone and raison d’être of democracy. Capitalism, at least what the French call “American hypercapitalism,” appears at odds with these political ideals. Recently, however, the story seems to have resolved itself in a post–Reagan–Thatcher–era democracy–as–consumer–rights debate, where the market rules, where whomever can give us the best file–sharing experience deserves to win. The rest is matter for academics and tireless bloggers — or both, of course.

For the last decade, U.S. journalists reporting on topics such as world trade, anti–globalization, environmental pacts, and privacy rights, have lingered on the margins of profound questions about the limits of freedom under the rule of the market.

In his essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent,” Thomas Frank (1997) exams some of the methods by which corporate America co–opts resistance by transforming it into what he describes as “the official style of information age capitalism.” The Internet may have intensified this phenomenon by creating more space to develop and facilitate countercultural movements while simultaneously extending corporate reach and tactical possibilities. So when Condé Nast–owned Vanity Fair put Sub–commander Marcos, the spokesman for the Internet–driven revolutionary Zapatista movement, on their cover, Frank’s analysis of Nike commercials featuring the poet William Burroughs came to mind. And when Apple’s iTunes was launched along with several competing legal music file–sharing services last spring it seemed that the ultimate online counterculture — millions of people downloading and swapping files illegally — suffered a blow much more fatal than any related court decision. “The problem with cultural dissent in America,” writes Frank, “isn’t that it has been co–opted, absorbed or ripped off … [but] that it is no longer any different from the official culture it is supposed to be subverting.” What we understand today as “dissent” fails to subvert once it is in corporate hands.

For the last decade, U.S. journalists reporting on topics such as world trade, anti–globalization, environmental pacts, and privacy rights, have lingered on the margins of profound questions about the limits of freedom under the rule of the market. The evolution of the media version of the file–sharing controversy is a revealing study in how smoothly and completely dominant cultural values work at story writing and how the stories then further those values by accelerating the convergence of counter and corporate culture. The file–sharing story was news that in the beginning seemed to powerfully challenge the ruling variety of capitalism and the fundamental legal ideology that supports it. It was “powerful” because of the numbers of people involved, the fact that they were of no one political persuasion, and that they seemed to accept at least de facto the fairly radical ‘hacker’ ideology that gave rise to the technology at the center of the debate. But the larger stories about Internet control and the politics of corporate capitalism faded, and in some cases they never surfaced, as the journalists I spoke to readily admit. The range of today’s file–sharing news stories, when compared against the breadth of topics the story initially suggested, is remarkably limited and includes by in large court reporting, product and business reviews, and celebrity news and opinions. While coverage consistently stretched the norms of professional journalism — most obviously by favoring online music innovators and users over corporate executives and by including Internet freedom as a prominent and clearly positive theme — the coverage ultimately left unchallenged the ideas and institutions that would support the music industry in its bid to control online music distribution. Journalistic accounts of the file–sharing debates never presented changing the laws that favor corporations over users. Nor did they fully explore the tension between the celebrated hacker ethic and capitalism. End of article


About the author

Adrienne Russell is a fellow at University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication, and an assistant professor in the American University of Paris’ Department of International Communications. She has written for the academic and popular press on new–media social movements, network identity and network–media narrative and myth. She is currently researching the contemporary news environment.



1. Lessig, 2001, p. 15.

2. Lovink, 2003, p. 54.

3. See, for example, “The Supreme Court; The Context; A Corporate Victory but one that Raises Public Consciousness,” New York Times (16 January 2003), Section A, p. 24; “Efforts to Swap Music Swapping Draw More Fire,” New York Times (1 August 2003), Section C, p. 1; “Subpoenas Sent to File–Sharers Prompt Anger and Remorse,” New York Times (28 July 2003), Section C, p. 1.

4. Menn, 2003, p. 2.

5. See, for example, “Mother Pays Girl’s Piracy Bill,” Guardian (11 September 2003), p. 23; “RIAA Lawsuit Brings Consternation, Chaos,” USA Today (10 September 2003), p. 4D; “Download Lawsuit Dismissed; RIAA Drops Claim that Grandmother Stole Online Music,” San Francisco Chronicle (25 September 2003), p. B1; “Recording industry Withdraws Suit, Mistaken Identity Raises Questions on Legal Strategy,” Boston Globe (24 September 2003), p. C1.



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Editorial history

Paper received 2 May 2006; accepted 19 July 2006.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Covering music file–sharing and the future of innovation
by Adrienne Russell.
First Monday, Volume 11, Number 9 — 4 September 2006

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.