The Recording Industry Association of America reared its ugly head last week for the second time this year. The trade group flung settlement letters at 22 universities, targeting 403 college students accused of illicitly distributing copyrighted music over peer-to-peer networks such as Limewire and Bearshare. One of these letters targeted a UW-Madison student and 61 more went after students across the UW System. The recipients of these letters can choose to respond by paying up to $3,000 to the RIAA as penalty for copyright infringement or ignore them and face the RIAA in a much pricier court case.
This is not the first wave of settlements to swamp universities. Last March, the RIAA flooded college students, including 16 from UW-Madison, with these letters,. Yet the current pool of settlement letters, washing up a scant six months after the last one, arrives in a much different environment than the previous set.
Over the summer, while you were enjoying a relaxing game of badminton in your grandmother's backyard, the RIAA fought — and lost — several court battles against those who decided to drag the case to court. One of these cases, Interscope v. Rodriguez, set a precedent influencing subsequent lawsuits, including two currently being waged by the RIAA. The federal judge tackling the Interscope case ruled that the RIAA — representing the record label Interscope — could not decisively prove who had downloaded or distributed the copyrighted files. The RIAA was only able to show when the offense was committed at a particular IP address.
For all the court knew, a total stranger could have snuck into Rodriguez' house in the dead of night and cheekily downloaded an Audio Bully's remix with Rodriguez none the wiser. Interscope v. Rodriguez serves a severe blow to the RIAA, who used its defeated arguments in all its prior court cases. With more fodder needed for its cases, the RIAA is hemorrhaging money by combing for more proof and appealing lost cases. It has even been forced to reimburse some of the defendants' legal fees after a lost case, such as in Atlantic v. Andersen, which was decided just last Saturday.
The RIAA doggedly continues to pursue settlements despite the glaring impracticality of legal action, hoping to intimidate enough people who can't afford a lengthy legal battle into accepting settlement letters out of court. Meanwhile, peer-to-peer networks are thriving, new as-yet-undetectable methods of file sharing are growing and CD sales have dropped 25 percent since 2000, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Digital singles purchased online are not making up for the lost revenue, despite a whopping 65 percent increase in online single sales from 2005 to 2006, and the RIAA is amassing a sizeable amount of hostility from Joe Consumer.
As the RIAA ruthlessly hunts for prey like some savage dinosaur desperate to keep the smaller mammals from ganging up on him, it's easy to forget that the RIAA has every right to pursue file sharers. File sharing is, quite frankly, illegal; just because proof of the crime is difficult to obtain does not mean the crime doesn't exist. The RIAA is justified, at least legally, in stomping after the perpetrators. However, a rabid enforcement of the law is simply not in the RIAA's best interests.
Court battles are becoming harder to wage and are not assuaging the shrinking of the corporate music industry. Instead, the RIAA must recognize that today's generation, suckled on the boundless information of the Internet, expects much freer access to its media. The New York Times knew that when it started providing its entire content online for free last week Wednesday. NBC knew it when it planned to offer its entire schedule via free Internet downloads, instead of iTunes' pay-per-episode program. The RIAA still doesn't get it.
The once-dominant association no longer enjoys the stranglehold on the music industry it once did. Listeners now have an exponentially greater number of avenues to discover music that appeals specifically to them, instead of relying largely on the RIAA to advertise and market bland pop designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible. Buyers can purchase music online, cutting CD distribution down to a level with which the RIAA is not comfortable. Even online, the CD becomes less lucrative as buyers can buy just one or two songs off the entire album, skipping the parts of the album that he or she finds uninspiring. In other words, the RIAA can no longer rely on a single hit single to sell entire CDs.
I could easily prattle on ad infinitum, but the final point remains: The RIAA will never loom as large as it did before the Internet's heyday, no matter how hard it tries to maintain that size. It would do much better to change its evangelical mindset and adapt a more Taoist view — stop fighting, accept change and adapt as best you can to your new environment.
Jack Garigliano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore majoring in English.