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News Flasher

I refuse to support Eliot Spit zer’s run for governor. I hate the idea. Why? Because he’s such an outrageously cool Attorney General, that’s why. Coming off the heels of his radio-payola investigation and his roughing-up of some big-music retailers for failing to pull infected Sony CDs off of their shelves, Spitzer last week served subpoenas on each of the major record labels, seeking information about how they set their prices for songs to digital distributors. In other words, he’s looking into how songs get from the labels to online digital stores like iTunes, Rhapsody, and the rest.

Nobody knows exactly what Spitzer’s up to, and many think he’s looking for evidence of collusion among the labels to keep the wholesale prices high, like he did a couple of years ago with the labels and CD prices. A problem he’s going to run into is that when there’s only a handful of big players, explicit agreements aren’t necessary; collusion just happens, so it’s hard to pin fault on anybody.

But maybe he’s got something else in mind. After all, the 60 cents or so that seems to be the standard wholesale price for digital songs doesn’t exactly smell like market-abusing pricing, and in fact most labels are rattling the cages to get more money for their songs, or at least to allow for variable pricing among songs.

Maybe Spitzer is sniffing around the edges of Apple, which controls a whopping 85 percent of the digital-download market. By leveraging its iconic iPod (the only MP3 player that matters), its seamless iTunes program and online music store, its proprietary digital-music format, and its ineffable patina of hipness, Apple owns the exploding digital music world so completely that somebody’s eventually gonna raise the antitrust flag.

And perhaps it will be Spitzer. But then again, maybe not. Even accepting that Apple has done something predatory and illegal, people in general really like Apple, Steve Jobs, and their iPods. Spitzer hounding Apple wouldn’t be perceived with the same general glee that accompanies Spitzer going after music industry honchos or Wall Street fat cats. In fact, the public reaction to an Apple antitrust probe could very well be extremely negative, and Spitzer’s got to know that. And Spitzer’s running for governor. Unfortunately.

In other news, a federal magistrate in Buffalo has refused to dismiss criminal charges against Steve Kurtz, the artist/college professor who’s facing serious jail time after police found harmless biological scientific materials in his house, almost two years ago. The police were in his house because his wife had just died and Kurtz called them. The police saw the materials and decided that Kurtz might be a terrorist.

Even after they were provided with the fact that Kurtz was a member of the internationally acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble, and that the test tubes and biological agents were part of the CAE’s high-concept art installations, the Feds have pressed on with their criminal case. Apparently, Kurtz had acquired some of his materials using his academic credentials, but used the materials for artistic, rather than academic, purposes. Somehow this almost imperceptible white lie has been translated by federal prosecutors into wire and mail fraud charges, for which Kurtz faces some serious jail time.

So now, almost two years after police refused to allow Kurtz to be near his dead wife’s body, after they ransacked his house and then charged him with absurdly trumped-up and transparently political charges, Kurtz is facing more appeals, hearings, and probably a trial. The trial will no doubt shed considerable light on the federales’ pathetic and inexcusable behavior, which resembles that of the KGB more than the FBI. But it’s going to cost Kurtz well over $250,000 in attorneys’ fees to get there.

If you want to help or find out more, visit www.caedefensefund.org.

Finally, there’s something interesting going on at the French Parliament, which a few weeks ago passed an amendment that legalized private, noncommercial file-sharing on the Internet. Apparently nobody expects this to actually become the law of the land, but it does indicate that there is a widespread sentiment in France that (a) file-sharing isn’t so bad; (b) maybe there are other ways to compensate artists, like through surcharges on hardware, software and Internet access; and (c) having large media conglomerates suing kids en masse for what has become, for better or for worse, socially acceptable behavior is maybe something a little bit oogly.

Wouldn’t it be swell if our Congress also looked at the issue with a clean mind, rather than holding hearings at which industry voices dominate and reviewing proposed laws drafted, submitted, and extravagantly paid for by K Street lobbying firms?

Dream on.

—Paul Rapp


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