The Recording Industry Association of America really ought to hold the moral high ground in its fight to stop illegal downloading of music. Record labels invest unquantifiable amounts of time, care, and money in finding, recording, distributing, and promoting new music. And then file-sharers take whatever songs they want without paying. But when the RIAA files a lawsuit, it faces an outcry of public “Aw, it’s just a kid who likes your music” sentiment.
People come up with all kinds of inventive hogwash to insist that downloading hasn’t hurt record labels’ bottom lines, even though the industry’s fall began at precisely the time downloading took off. It’s common sense that people won’t buy what they can get for free. Improbably, critics insist that the steep sales drop is due to a decline in music quality.
Of course, they never explain why people are downloading the music if it’s so bad. And if music quality has declined somewhat, it’s completely reasonable to suspect that’s an effect, not a cause, of the sales drop. Most bands fail, so when record labels have cash flow problems, they have to stick with familiar, generic sounds they know people will buy.
Unfortunately, the RIAA seems hell-bent on vindicating the anger that so many have for it. First it supported forcing colleges to police students’ Internet activities. And now it’s claiming that ripping legally purchased CDs — putting the songs on a computer, even if just for one’s own use — is illegal.
The case revolves around Arizona’s Jeffrey Howell. The lawsuit itself wouldn’t be particularly unusual — the RIAA is suing Howell for allegedly sharing music songs he hadn’t purchased — but an RIAA brief argues that sharing isn’t the only problem.
According to this legal trial balloon, all of the MP3 files on Howell’s computer, even the ones he made from CDs he’d purchased legally, are “unauthorized copies.”
The RIAA apparently has no scruples about taking on the role of most unpopular organization in the known universe, but self-preservation should make the brass pull back here. This new argument is, at best, a dubious legal strategy. And its effect on sales is not likely to be good.
FAIR USE IS THE question here. When a media company grants a customer access to a product, the consumer can use the material in a number of ways. Most importantly, he can tape TV shows for his own viewing. No court has ever explicitly ruled on CD ripping, but it’s not clear what the difference is.
The VHS tape of 1984 and the hard drive of today both contain legally accessed material, transferred to a different format for personal use. It doesn’t matter whether that particular copy is “authorized” by the author, so long as the customer isn’t giving it to other people.
It’s also unclear what financial benefit the RIAA hopes to gain. If successful, this new anti-ripping stance will cut down on the number of people who put their music on their computers, but it will do so, disproportionately, with people who weren’t sharing the music to begin with. File-sharers are already breaking the law by giving others’ music away for free, so it’s doubtful many will stop when their behavior becomes illegal in another way.
The RIAA has had some success with lawsuits — the recording industry’s sales even rose slightly in 2004, the year the suits began, after falling since 1999; though sales have continued to tank since then — and it’s true this would lower the burden of proof. RIAA lawyers would only have to prove ripping, rather than sharing. But in the vast majority of cases, the RIAA’s targets settle out of court anyway.
Who will most of the consumers who stop ripping music be? Many customers like having high-quality sound for their home systems, but also want small files to put on their MP3 players and iPods. These people are best served by CDs — which contain high-definition audio, but can be ripped to a computer file, compressed to a fraction of the original size, and transferred to a tiny device that holds hundreds of songs.
Maybe these customers will turn to legal downloads and suffer the quality loss on their home systems (and the lack of supporting materials like insert booklets). Maybe they’ll put their iPods away, or even buy both CDs and legal files, paying twice for the same material. Or maybe, fed up with the way they were treated when they paid for material, they’ll go for illegal downloads.
Whatever happens, the RIAA will have put the screws to paying customers.
By and large, I believe that the RIAA is right on matters of piracy. But that won’t matter at all if its actions create in customers nothing but contempt for the current law, which is the one thing keeping the record labels in business.
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