A punk rocker defended file-sharing sites while a music-industry representative quoted a rapper blasting the practice, in a lively debate before hundreds of American University students in Boston.

Participants at the event, sponsored by American University's School of Communications, offered different interpretations of the impact of peer-to-peer sites that sometimes distribute copyrighted music.

Cheating the creators? "Most importantly, songwriters are left behind," said David Sutphen, vice president of government relations for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). "People think, well, artists can make money by touring, but if you are a songwriter you aren't touring." The RIAA's stance against sharing digital tunes is well established, as the organization has sued hundreds of people it contends are stealing copyrighted material.

Peer-to-peer sites actually promote music sales by introducing people to new bands and by allowing consumers to sample music before buying it, says Adam Eisgrau, executive director of P2P United, an industry association of file-sharing sites.

Also, Marty Lafferty, CEO of the industry group Distributed Computing Industry Association, pushed for congressional action to change current copyright law. He encouraged the music industry to explore new technology to find a compromise with digital-music fans who want to share files.

"Look, people eventually realized that the VCR wasn't going to kill the movie industry and they should learn to use the technology," Eisgrau said. He suggested the recording industry build a royalty pool or some system that embraces the new technology while also meeting their financial goals.

Sutphen maintained that file-sharing is detrimental to the music industry and implored students to consider the consequences.

"I think LL Cool J said it best when he testified before the Senate, 'if I steal a necklace from Tiffany and tell people I got it from Tiffany does that help Tiffany?,'" Sutphen said.

Musician plays to crowd As the debate escalated, the various representatives defended their positions apparently unwilling to compromise. Roughly a half-hour into the discussion, punk legend Ian MacKaye of the band Fugazi rallied the audience and took control of the discussion.

"All this going on up here is so far away from music," MacKaye said. "I grew up in DC so I know how deep this bureaucracy goes. If you want to do something don't ask, just do it, because the answer is always no," he advised the audience.

MacKaye also offered a brief history lesson in musical distribution. "Music predates language. At some point in time musicians played and people went to hear them – some may have been paid and some not. At the turn of the century there was this great invention that allowed music to be recorded. Soon there was a market for this music and soon after there was a business established to make money off of this market. You can't take music away from people, it is free in the air." As MacKaye spoke, many in the crowd cheered in agreement.

Others on the panel labeled MacKaye an anomaly among artists.

"Ian made a choice," said Rich Taylor, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, which has also sought to protect its copyrights in court. "He made a decision to put music out there, but artists have the right to make a living."

Debate continues MacKaye noted after the discussion that he is hardly a struggling artist.

"I run a record label. I pay everyone in my band, and all of the band members have bought houses. We are making a living," MacKaye said.

Sarah Van Ballegooijen, a sophomore at American University, said she thought MacKaye made the most impressive argument.

"Anything legal like this is bipolar, two sides," she said. MacKaye "brought in a third, which is really good to hear. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I think to a certain degree this is the record companies' own fault for not adopting the technology when they could see it coming. If they had adopted a convenient service like iTunes, under record company licensing, the problem wouldn't be as severe as it is now," Van Ballegooijen said. She added she thinks the recording industry's lawsuits will not solve the problem.