Feb 04, 2009, 05:08AM

Copyright Bullies

The RIAA is infuriating, but Creative Commons could eventually destroy its purpose.

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Photo by _nickd

I’m not alone: I hate the Recording Industry Association of America.

Most people my age do. People in their 20s know the RIAA almost exclusively from articles in their student newspaper—some of which I wrote for The Michigan Daily—about the organization suing students for sharing songs under copyright. To date, about 30,000 people, many of them students, have been sued. Adults uninitiated into digital culture said "good riddance" to these kids, accusing them of stealing. How silly.

My thoughts on the RIAA improved slightly a few months ago when I heard they were stopping the lawsuits. The lawsuits were bad PR and they weren't working. Hallelujah! But not so fast! Never underestimate the will of an industry in search of profits. Now there is news the organization is enlisting ISPs—the likes of AT&T and Comcast—to go after those who breach copyright.

How did they muscle the ISPs into this? I'm no expert on telecommunications policy and the law, but my uneducated guess is they threatened to sue the ISPs for violators on its servers, and the ISPs figured it was easier to just comply. Yet this deal reeks of corporate collusion. If one ISP decides not to comply, which may still happen, users who had the choice might flock to them (the lack of real free choice among telecommunications providers is one of my big pet peeves). The RIAA/ISP deal only works if everybody's in on it.

This entire hullabaloo only underscores how silly and outdated copyright law is today—how silly it has been since its inception, really. Copyright violations happen all the time today and go unprosecuted—see YouTube—because companies simply find a way to make money through other channels. Post Grey's Anatomy on YouTube? Fine, come to ABC.com for the HD version! Yet copyright has been protecting the interests of companies since its invention (since 17th and 18th centuries), and typically an industry relents and finds a way for artists to "violate" copyright after discovering new profit channels.

Digital media presents a challenge to the arts industries, but do not be fooled: the RIAA is not defending artists. That's the crap they say to gain public support. In fact, artists have little control over the money they make on their songs these days. RIAA is protecting the companies, who take most of the money artists make. Because copyrights last decades, long after the artist dies, the industry can lock-in profits for years to come at the expense of artists, users and the public interest. It is corporate greed, plain and simple. And they are willing to wage the country's worst PR campaign—suing your customers! Nice!—in order to make a few extra dollars.

Let's also be honest about something: young people are not stealing. They are sharing, like those who once made VCR recordings of TV shows for friends (a court-approved practice the industry originally opposed). Lawrence Lessig has been the most impassioned voice in trying loosen our definitions of copyright to be more open, fostering creativity instead of criminalizing young people. Lessig's Creative Commons license, a free and easy way for artists to encourage others to use their work, is quite revolutionary and should become the standard among creative types working today. People my age have a different idea of what ownership means. We share and remix to create new art and are less profit-driven than others.  

In fact most artists don't care too much about profits. That's because most artists will never make as much as those signed with Universal Music Group or with a distribution deal with Warner Bros. One of the most important movies about digital culture to date, LOL, has its soundtrack available for free download. As another example, I once made a YouTube video using a song by Mikel Rouse I heard at a Merce Cunningham performance and cited him next to the video. One day the artist himself commented on my page. I was scared. Was he going to sue me for copyright violation? No! He congratulated me on my interpretation of his work.

Most artists just want their work seen and heard. Corporations want to make money. Now two industries are colluding to stifle creativity and the advancement of the arts, which is the constitutional justification for copyright. People are powerless to stop it. When will the recording industry modernize and develop a viable alternative to file sharing? When will Congress, the administration, or some rich file-sharer finally stand up to these bullies and say enough is enough?

  • Wow, it looks like Splice has really been on a RIAA kick recently. I'm not so sure that your comment about artistic interpretation is relevant here. It's a very small community out of the general public that's downloading music in order to create remixes, art projects...etc. Playlists absolutely, but I wouldn't consider that the same kind of artistic endeavor as the other things cited. We aren't all putting together Girl Talk style mash ups. Ownership is an interesting topic here. Even though our generation is more habituated at downloading music than buying albums this doesn't mean that we have any less of a drive for "ownership." There's a reason why websites have options for both streaming songs and downloading songs, and part of that reason is because we want to possess that song. Then again, if you're downloading the new Metallica album or whatever, you're a straight dummy and asking for trouble.

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  • I think that's true. But certainly people should have the option to remix, which means a loosening of copyright. Besides, while copyright is ostensibly about the right to copy - obvi -- it is in practice about the right to sell, and we know young people aren't selling this music at all.........Perhaps the most overlooked point is that, if someone wants to support an artist s/he'll buy the record, even if they can get it free, this is especially true of independent artists, rare remixes, etc. which are hard to find on P2P services anyway....

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  • Boiling this down to 'corporate greed' is too simplistic. What would all the file sharers do if big record companies didn't exist? Who would invest in new artists? For all the clueless things that the RIAA does, they do provide a service, and rather than slinging stones at them we should try to think of new ways for them to make money. Does anyone have a more sophisticated idea than 'The RIAA sucks, man....'?

  • Since when has the RIAA done anything but stand in the way of good music? I thought they just appealed to the lowest common American Idol-loving denominator...

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  • There is something extremely ironic about the main article titled "Young People, Music & The Internet" on the RIAA website being in a downloadable format. Or maybe that's the catch. Ianrod makes a necessary point, can't we start a more advanced dialogue that goes beyond simply railing against the RIAA? The problem however is that there is a difference between the RIAA and the services they provide and then the actual members of the RIAA and their respective services. The members of the industry include such awesome labels as Astralwerks, Hip-O, Motown!...the list goes on. The industry distributes licenses, royalties, and all those gold,silver,platinum awards. Kind of like Golden Globes & More! When we think of street teams, record promos, advertising, this isn't the RIAA. Perhaps it's funded in part by the group or streamlined or whatever but this work is accomplished by the actual publicity firms, fans etc. If you receive a Justice promo in the mail it ain't the RIAA sending it to you, it's the Biz3 publicity team. So as much as I believe we should transform this conversation into something more constructive than the "RIAA Sucks" I feel that that can't really be done until the music industry stops issuing subpoenas to dead grandmothers, children, and people who don't own computers, stripping them of their ability to challenge in court (which has clearly caught the eye of the ACLU) and then charging them the outrageous total of $750 per song title for losses that have been calculated as "negligible to very small."

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  • I hate "evil corporation" arguments as much as the next person, but the bottom line is that's what's going on. In practice, thousands of artists every year cobbled together a few thousand dollars, spend a weekend in an independent production studio and cut an album. You don't need the big companies to do that. They are marketing/distribution venues, which is great for Jennifer Hudson (love her) but a saavy online promotion campaign can be quite effective....AND btw, it isn't our job to come up with new models for the big corps, if they spent all that money suing people into R&D they would have innovated their way out of this problem by now.

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  • Hold up one second, enough of this RIAA is just Metallica and Jennifer Hudson nonsense. There's a good chance that the label that represents your favorite band is listed among the members: http://www.riaa.com/aboutus.php?content_selector=aboutus_members

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  • Okay, I'll concede. But who stands to gain from legal action? I'm talking about on the ground, in practice. If you want to download something illegally, it's harder to find Fennesz and Matmos than JHud. And Universal Music Group is loosing more than Matador and Touch (which aren't in the RIAA I just found out!).

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  • I guess my point is that RIAA is not a charity organization. This isn't about ideals. It's about money. It's job is to protect an industry, not create better music, or make it easier for good music to get heard. If you read the Constitution, that's what copyright is about: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." It says "progress of the arts," not "profits of the arts."

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  • It's very sad that artistic integrity and art itself has to be handled by such a greedy and capitalistic organization. The RIAA is evil, and they know their industry is dying, so they're really resorting to some lowly stuff just to survive. And it's not working, and they know that. I can't wait for the day when music is freed from the grip of an organization entirely antithetical to the idea of art.

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  • they should print uniquely on vinyl. or find a way to put all the comapnies making digital music players (computers, DC players, mp3 players) out of business. these two things together would be a perfect formula. vinyl and no mp3/cd players.

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  • really though, there needs to be an incentive to buy the album, such as supporting a favorite artist, or obtaining sick album art.

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