Advocates for online file swapping squared off with representatives from the music and motion picture industries at the Las vegas Comdex trade show Tuesday for a lively debate about digital rights management.

The controversial issue of file-swapping dominated the discussion from the sharply divided panel, which pitted Ted Cohen, the vice president of digital development and distribution at EMI Group PLC's EMI Recorded Music against the likes of Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation and a staunch opponent of digital copyright protections.

"EMI believes in making music available at a reasonable price, with reasonable rights for reasonable use," Cohen said at the start of the discussion.

Cohen said his company supports the online distribution of music, so long as it can be done in such a way that allows artists and record companies to still make money.

His comments prompted an immediate and lengthy rebuttal from Stallman, who argued that music companies like EMI were tyrannical and had a long history of cheating musicians out of their royalties.

Civil disobedience Stallman likened music file swapping to an act of civil disobedience that actually benefited artists by disempowering large media conglomerates.

Also taking part in the panel were so-called "cognitive dissident" John Perry Barlow, co-founder and vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; J. Scott Dinsdale, vice president of digital strategy for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Jonathan Potter, executive director of the Digital Media Association.

At the heart of the discussion was whether rapid advances in digital-reproduction technology over the past decade have outstripped the business models and legal protections used by the music and entertainment industries for most of this century.

The MPAA's Dinsdale said that choice should be the driving force in decisions of digital rights management. Creators of songs and movies should be able to decide how they want to distribute their work to the public.

Creators and consumers together should decide what value a particular work has. Any laws or technologies that took choice out of the hands of creators were "wrong and pretentious," Dinsdale said.

Core constituencies Similar thoughts were offered by Potter, who said that creators of expression and the public were the "two core constituencies" in the issue, and that record companies should find ways to assist interaction between those two parties, or "get out of the way."

Potter said he was encouraged by signs that record companies had embraced the idea of online music distribution, for example by experimenting with offering individual song downloads for US$0.99. Music companies and consumers will soon settle on an online distribution model that is acceptable to both parties and allows companies and artists to continue making profits, according to Potter.

Stallman and, to a lesser degree, Barlow took issue with Potter's sunny predictions.

Barlow expressed concern about the ongoing development of hardware and software to block the use of digital material that violates copyrights, noting that both Microsoft and Intel are developing such technology.

"I see them changing the matrix of the Internet to a model that's based on surveillance and control. That is in the long term advantage of those who want to control and surveil," Barlow said.

Some of the most heated exchanges, however, were between Potter and Stallman, who at one point called Potter "a troll."

Control While Stallman supported the idea of consumers paying for downloaded music, he argued that those consumers should be able to control what happens to that music once it resides on their computer.

Potter countered that selling music is not an easy thing to do, and that music companies have a right to be remunerated for their effort.

The key, he said, is for music companies to find a distribution model that satisfies both consumers and the companies' shareholders. The current system of selling whole albums with "two songs you like and twelve you don't" will likely disappear in the very near future, Potter said.

An informal poll of the audience indicated broad support for the rights of artists to get paid for their work – but also suggested widespread use of file-swapping technologies such as Gnutella.

Questions from audience members suggested that support for technology that will allow individuals to legally purchase music online and suspicion about the intentions of media conglomerates exist in almost equal parts.