RIAA's New Piracy Plan Poses a New Set of Problems

Artwork: Chip Taylor
The Recording Industry Association of America is taking a dangerous step with its decision to stop suing suspected music sharers and start cutting off their Internet access instead. While the discontinuation of the lawsuit practice has its merits, the move opens up a whole new can of worms -- one that could have serious implications for our future rights as consumers of information.

The Good

On the one hand, the shift -- revealed Friday, initially in a story published in The Wall Street Journal -- does mark the end of a troubling and generally ineffective process. RIAA's past practice of independently tracking down and going after individual users has raised countless questions, most of which have focused on the group's data gathering methodology. The organization has filed numerous lawsuits that have appeared to be faulty, including one now-infamous instance in which it attempted to sue a deceased woman. The woman -- who was 83 when she passed away -- "hated computers," her children said.

Most data also suggests the lawsuits have done little to curb the online sharing of copyrighted music -- rather, the number of filesharers appears to have actually increased since RIAA started its lawsuit push in 2003. A report released this past September by the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that music sharing is "more popular than ever, despite the widespread public awareness of lawsuits." Furthermore, the report points out, "the lawsuit campaign has not resulted in any royalties to artists."

(The vast majority of RIAA's lawsuits have resulted in minimal out-of-court settlements. The sole case that went to trial -- against a mother of six named Jammie Thomas -- saw its verdict thrown out in September. That case is still scheduled to be retried.)

The Bad

The new plan, while ending the era of problem-ridden legal attacks, appears to circumvent the law and instead put the power directly into the hands of RIAA. The group says it will work directly with Internet service providers to go after people it believes are illegally sharing files. RIAA will notify an ISP, which will then warn the user and ultimately suspend or discontinue his access if a change is not observed. "Major ISPs" are said to be on board with the idea.

Effectively, RIAA has turned itself into the sheriff, and your ISP into its deputy. Based on the same data gathering and user identification methods that have come under fire from the start, RIAA will now be able to get your Internet access limited or discontinued on its own if it for some reason flags you as an illegal filesharer. And I'm not the only one left feeling a little wary about that.

"This means more music fans are going to be harassed by the music industry," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The problem is the lack of due process for those accused," von Lohmann continues. "In a world where hundreds of thousands, or millions, of copyright infringement allegations are automatically generated and delivered to ISPs, mistakes are going to be made. ... Anyone who has ever had to fight to correct an error on their credit reports will be able to imagine the trouble we're in for."

The Solution

In essence, the music industry is trading one questionable practice for another. Striking a deal to deem itself the judge and your ISP the regulator is not the answer -- and it's not going to win the war, either.

What is the solution, then? The EFF suggests RIAA support a "voluntary collective licensing regime" -- basically, a legal peer-to-peer network that'd let music fans pay a small monthly fee for the right to freely trade music. A survey conducted this summer found an overwhelming 80 percent of current peer-to-peer users would be interested in paying for such a system. If organized, it'd put a stamp of approval on a process that's going on anyway -- and, for an inconsequential individual fee of something like $5 a month, the industry would be able to pay rights-holders based on how much their music is being downloaded.

"The more people share, the more money goes to rights-holders," the EFF points out. "The more competition in P2P software, the more rapid the innovation and improvement. The more freedom for fans to upload what they care about, the deeper the catalog."

The model follows the system set up for radio stations by organizations such as ASCAP and BMI. Perhaps RIAA would be wise to consider such a system, one that could serve the interests of all parties involved rather than harming them.

Here's what it boils down to: When almost every voice in earshot is crying out against the way you operate, you have to start wondering if maybe -- just maybe -- you're going about things the wrong way. The world is crying out, RIAA. It's time to start listening.

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