September 11, 2003

Scenes From a Larger War

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The RIAA’s corporate logo should be an ostrich. The same industry which fought the switch from 78s to longer playing records, from eight-tracks to cassettes, and from cassettes to CDs, is again raging against its own future. The RIAA is not only trying to prevent people from getting music for free; they are trying to keep them from acquiring it digitally. They are waging their ill-conceived campaign in the wrong arena and with the wrong weapons.

Instead of simply printing C&D letters or obtaining court injunctions, the RIAA has declared that file sharing is not only illegal, but also immoral, and that getting music for free is unprecedented in the history of music. Their biggest mistake has been their — for lack of a better discription — tone of voice. In advertisements, before congress, and in interviews they are self-righteously shrill. This is an erroneous approach for two reasons. First, file sharing is now so endemic that it can be compared to two other youth activities: underage drinking and pot smoking. In all three of these cases the practitioners know full well that their actions are illegal, but would hardly describe them as wrong. This is the difference between being sorry you got caught and feeling guilty that you’ve done it, and right now one would be hard pressed to turn up anyone who regrets file sharing on principle. Instead of sticking to the legal highground which they so clearly occupy, the RIAA has opted to engage the debate on a moral level. This has lead to their adoption of such outrageous lawsuits that they may soon lose the legal sympathy they are owed: the justice department isn’t wild about frivilous lawsuits.

Second of all, a shrill tone betrays underlying fear. It invites people to look behind the guise. This supposedly injured industry is the same one which promised more than ten years ago that CD prices would eventually fall to comparable tape prices (they haven’t) and which habitually defrauded early blues and rock artists — a practice so well known it formed the basis for an episode of the Sopranos.

The RIAA similarly fails to understand the scope of file sharing and its antecedents. Based on the damages claimed, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the entire industry is hurting. It isn’t. The record stores forced to close are the giant chains, not independents like Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey or Ameoba Records in San Fransisco, just as the artists losing revenue are the TRL set, not mid-list or independent labels or artists. This suggests that file sharers and CD buyers are not mutually exclusive. Which means that by suing file sharers the RIAA is embarking on a policy which is dedicated to bankrupting their clients.

The law suits, and the manner in which they were obtained, were fatal mistakes. In the end, like all cultural clashes, this will be decided in no court except that of public opinion. It is far more likely that people will find the spector of kids listening to a new single for free less frightening than that of a huge corporation obtaining your IP address, scanning the contents of your computer, and taking you to court over it.

The RIAA is wrong in its assertion that free music is unprecedented. The history of file sharing goes back past making mix tapes off the radio to the days of famous lost albums and bootlegs (adopted from the name of a practice during phrohibition, another law which worked out just about as well). Though technically illegal, Bootlegs were also considered to be the mark of true fans — the ones who had to hear every take of a song, and every concert of a tour. For that matter, while record companies (and some artists) frowned on them, ask your parents if they ever got sued over owning a copy of Dylan’s Basement Tapes. But just as most file sharrers don’t download entire albums, niether do they exclusively trade in rareities. Rather, playlists have come to resemble nothing so much as radio. The decline of radio occured almost simultaneouslly with the advent of file share programs. As radio, the traditional source of free music, turned into a bland 20 minute block on permanent repeat, millions of people turned their PCs into Doesn’ The RIAA may indeed win the battle, but they’ve been fighting the wrong war. Below is the story of one of those affected.

Katherine O’connor as told to Erica stein

In October / November of my Freshman year, I got an e-mail. It basically said “you’re in violation of the student conduct code and please contact the JA.” I knew immediately what it was about because I’d heard you could get caught, but as clich