Software Beware

Professional audio software piracy emerges as an issue in the professional audio community
  • Photo: Full Sail University
    A live control room at Full Sail University
  • Photo: Full Sail University
    The media center at Full Sail University
  • Ray Williams
  • Photo: Cheryl Jacobson
    Carl Jacobson
June 03, 2010 -- 11:05 am PDT
By Dan Daley /

Dating back to 1999 and the RIAA's lawsuit against Napster, illicit downloading of music has been one of the leading music news stories of the past decade. While piracy has greatly affected recorded music sales, it has also emerged as an issue in the professional audio community. Specifically, the software that's used every day around the world by recording artists, musicians, audio engineers, and producers who actually create music.

This was exactly the topic of a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in May, which ruled in favor of an Israeli music production software maker, Waves, in its assertion that two New York recording studios — Skyline Recording Studios NYC and Quad Recording Studios — had used or allowed to be used in their facilities illicit, or "cracked, " copies of Waves software. In the actions, which were filed separately, Skyline lost a lawsuit brought by Waves, while Quad settled.

"In the Skyline case, the jury found that Waves had valid copyrights and that the defendant infringed on those copyrights," states Guy H. Weiss of law firm Adorno & Yoss, which represented Waves in the litigation. "The law is clear: A recording studio is responsible for the copyright infringement committed by its employees, independent contractors or customers."

But most instances of professional audio software piracy don't have such clear-cut resolutions, and the problem remains rampant. According to the International Music Software Trade Association, a nonprofit association headquartered in Toronto, the narrowing ratio between sales of computer-based music hardware products such as soundcards (the group uses that statistic to measure the implied demand for enhanced audio capability on PCs) and the sales of professional audio software indicate that the latter is also increasingly pirated.

Based on data from the NAMM Global Report, in 1997 the total U.S. sales of soundcards reached approximately $15 million and the total sales of music software — including software from market-leading Avid/Digidesign's Pro Tools, Steinberg's Nuendo and Propellerhead's Reason — totaled approximately $85 million, representing a ratio of software sold to soundcards sold of more than 5-to-1.

However, while both soundcard and software sales have increased appreciably since 1997, the increase has not been proportional. Soundcard sales have increased 12-fold to $185 million, while software sales have less than tripled to $235 million. Similarly, sales of keyboard controllers, which generally require software to operate, have jumped from 12,750 units sold in 1997 to 88,500 in 2008, while software sales have shown nowhere near that sort of exponential increase. All this suggests a concomitant increase in software piracy, says the IMSTA.

IMSTA board member Ray Williams acknowledges the conclusion is inferential but asserts that it's also undeniable. "If someone buys a synthesizer, they can plug it in and play, but if they buy a keyboard controller, it's obvious they'll need to buy sound-making software to make it work," he explains. "If people are buying soundcards for computers, it indicates that they're using [music production] software for those soundcards, and the [disparity] between the sales of the two categories clearly shows that professional audio software isn't being purchased as much as it's apparently being used."

Compared to the $53 billion of worldwide PC software piracy losses in 2008 reported by the Business Software Alliance, or even the RIAA's assertion that $12.5 billion is lost to music piracy in the United States annually, Williams is the first to concede that $85 million is a relatively small amount.

But, he contends emphatically, the crucial — and ironic — nature of what's being stolen makes it a critical one. "Once people who have been downloading music without paying for it decide to make music for a living, they realize that the theft of intellectual property — theirs and the software they rely on to make the music — can really affect them," he says.

When he gives seminars on the topic at the numerous media academies around the country, Williams says he is still confounded by students who snicker when he asks when they last purchased music. "Even there, where they're learning how to produce music, they still don't see the connection," he complains.

These academies are key fronts in the battle against professional audio software piracy, thanks to thousands who are signing up to pay as much as $40,000 for a degree in music production. IMSTA is partnering with the School of Audio Engineering, which has 53 campuses in 24 countries, for IMSTA Festa, a daylong music software expo that will be held at SAE's New York school on Sept. 25, the first of its kind in the United States.

It's an opportunity for IMSTA's software-maker constituency to grab additional market- and mind-share in an increasingly crowded space. IMSTA lists 46 product manufacturers and many additional retailers and distributors of pro audio software worldwide among its members. And IMSTA's slogan is "buy the software you use."

SAE students are given an Apple MacBook loaded with Apple's Logic recording software as part of their tuition, though that laptop will likely hold other audio programs such as Reason, Steinberg's Cubase and Ableton Live for audio, and multimedia packages such as Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, Autodesk Maya, and Adobe Creative Suite bundles by the time their owners graduate.

Once paid for, those computers are the property of the respective students and the school has no legal control over their contents, says Silvan Jongerius, corporate relations manager at SAE's Amsterdam school, though the school administers license agreements worldwide and employs a variety of controls, such as dongles (hardware plug-ins that allow secured software to run) and iLoks for its shared software.

Piracy has grown as an issue as software has assumed the central role in modern music production, he acknowledges. "More and more music is created, recorded, mixed, and mastered with the use of software packages — essentially, software is the future [for] the audio industry," says Jongerius. "Software piracy destroys a healthy market and work environment for our students in the future."

There are also very practical reasons why media academies try to minimize music creation software piracy. Besides damage to its reputation, Mike Sangrey, director of technical services at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla., says, "Pirated versions could potentially conflict with our [computer] systems."

Copies of professional audio software aren't as easy to download as music, or even movies. Some programs such as Cakewalk's Sonar are relatively huge and require four DVDs to store its approximately 20 megabytes of data. Still, those who want it but don't want to pay the $400-plus retail price for the full program have no problem letting a download run overnight from an illegal P2P site, according to Cakewalk Vice President of Marketing Carl Jacobson.

Digital technology's fundamental role in music culture has transformed what had once been a technical challenge into an ethical one. That challenge is moving from whether to use AutoTune on a vocal or to using a legitimate copy of AutoTune on a vocal.

(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)

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